Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Hans Gabor Belvedere Singing Competition: Rathaus Final review

On Sunday I went to the final of the Hans Gabor Belvedere competition and heard a less impressive set of finalists than the competition has fielded in recent years, with no one knock-out performance to take home the top prize.

But prizes must be given anyway and this year South Korea put in a strong showing, with tenor Beomjin Kim and soprano Sang-Ah Yoon placing 1st and 3rd respectively. Both performances were technically immaculate though Yoon’s delicately sung ‘Sì, mi chiamano Mimì’, naive and sincere in disposition, was generically phrased and anchored so lightly there was little scope for her to sound more fragile. Both audience and jury were quite taken with Kim, whose ‘Tombe degli avi miei’ had freely-produced sound, Italianate ring and disciplined vocal control harnessed to perceptive phrasing. A certain calculation to the singing was just about concealed, but if one minds inauthenticity – Kim was running as the Pavarotti legacy candidate and has no vocal personality to call his own yet – then his voice, as surprisingly developed as it is for a 22 year old, wouldn’t have made a lasting impression.

2nd prize went to South African soprano Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi, who sang ‘Martern aller Arten’. She also got my vote for the Publikumspreis, which I didn’t expect her to win – though she did. This aria is a risky choice for a competition final, and I hope it was her choice (the decision lies with the jury and is made known to the singers the night before the final, though I assume not wholly without their consultation [no consultation at all, I am informed]). If one sets one’s Mozart store by unfaltering precision this performance wouldn’t have come up to scratch, but I found something Mozartian to appreciate in the overshot runs and occasionally unsteady pulse, less reckless than a matter of apt exuberance overriding caution. Technically there was plenty elsewhere to prove that Mkhwanazi is not a careless singer: cleanness of attack, trills, repeated notes and the low descents were all quite in order. And if we tolerate human error for the sake of greater perfection, otherwise known as the (much-abused) Wiener Philharmoniker rule, well, I think Mkhwanazi was showing us, albeit not quite flawlessly, how this can function as an aria for Mme Cavalieri’s ‘flexible throat’ and the turning point in the opera (and for Konstanze) that we more commonly recognize. Unorthodox inflections and distinctive phrasing intersected virtuosic and psychodramatic territory, particularly in the unusual and compelling descent on ‘des Himmels Segen belohne dich’. Mkhwanazi’s understanding of what the two tempi have to do with the aria’s unconventional form was striking, and drawing attention – though not too excessively – to the Allegro’s appearance in the Allegro assai’s concluding return made it musically and dramatically clear why there should be a further interruption here. Perhaps needless to say this was the only aria in the final with originality of interpretative thought.

Time, I think, for competitors who didn’t win big prizes but deserve honourable mentions. Singing Yeletsky’s aria, Michal Partyka, from Poland, was like a burgeoning deep-voiced Gremin trapped in the body and musical temperament of an Onegin. Shame really, but I liked his glutinous sound. Daichi Fujiki, from Japan, used to work in some administrative capacity for the Wiener Staatsoper before he wisely decided that being a countertenor would be much more fun. He doesn’t possess a huge sound and his passagework wasn’t always secure, but he is a natural actor and dispatched ‘Viva, tiranno!’ from Rodelinda with plenty of vocal flair and a few pertinent gestural antics on the side. South Korean mezzo Eun-Kyong Kim sang ‘Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix’ from Samson et Dalila and, knowing exactly what tempi are good for her, squarely hit that golden ratio between breath control and phrasing that eluded so many of the other finalists. In ‘La mamma morta’ from Andrea Chénier, Moldava’s Olga Busuioc produced the most emotional sound of the afternoon without getting too emotional. Of the finalists outside the top three she was perhaps the most overlooked.

This has not been a great year for the Kammeroper as far as treatment by the City of Vienna is concerned and it was a shame, however unintended and coincidental, that somebody at the Rathaus thought it would be OK to allow soundchecks for the ongoing Jazz Fest Wien to occur both in the town hall’s inner courtyard and on Rathausplatz – i.e. either side of the Festsaal – during the competition. And due to reduced funding, the operetta division of the competition was cancelled this year. With all that has happened, it was touching to see Frau Gabor get a standing ovation at the end of the competition.

The web streaming allowed parents and relatives of the competitors unable to come to Vienna to watch the competition live and a shout-out is owed to Samantha Farber of Vienna-based agency Sono Artists Consulting for sponsoring and organizing it.

For those in Vienna who wish to hear more from the winners, a gala concert will be held tomorrow night in Baden (remaining tickets can be booked here).

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