Thanks to the wonders of the internet, last evening just as I was leaving the opening night performance of the National Ballet, my smartphone alerted me to the results of the Art Song semi-finals at this year’s Concours musical international de Montréal (CMIM). All eight singers were strong candidates, and it couldn’t have been easy for the judges. In the end, four very deserving singers with beautiful voices and superb musicianship were chosen to go on to the finals: John Brancy, baritone (USA); Clara Osowski, mezzo (USA); Julien van Mellaerts (New Zealand), and Gemma Summerfield, soprano (UK).
I was able to watch all eight semi-finalists in the archived videos. While I came across some truly superb moments in the performances from those singers not chosen for the finals — Rihab Chaieb’s affecting “Kennst du das Land” and Irina Jae-Eun Park’s gorgeous “Del cabello mas sutil” come immediately to mind — over all I cannot say I disagree much with the judges. There are reasons why these four are chosen – sure they sang extremely well, but there are other intangibles. From reading their bios, these four finalists have the most experience (and success) in song competitions. John Brancy, Clara Osowski and Julien van Mellaerts are all laureates in the prestigious Wigmore Hall competition. Brancy, in particular, has an incredible list of wins in major competitions. Given the superlative performances of these four singers here at CMIM, they could not be denied.
The program length for the Semi-finals is longer than First Round, something like 30 minutes. Singers often choose multiple songs from the same cycle. Gemma Summerfield sang the whole Ravel’s Cinq Melodies populaires grecques. Doing a big cycle allows for better story-telling and allow the singer to better sustain a mood. But then it can limit the stylistic variety, giving an impression of sameness — such is the perennial dilemma in programming! It seems the contestants were all well-aware of these pitfalls, and their programming, in general, was superb.
John Brancy gave a masterful performance throughout. His high baritone isn’t particularly rich or even the most beautiful, but it’s warm, engaging, and expressive, and to be sure technically secure. His “Erkönig,” surely one of the greatest Lied ever composed and an acid test for any singer, was as well sung as any I’ve heard in recent memory. Perfectly judged musically and dramatically, exciting but never over-done. You can delineate the four voices well, but without exaggeration by the singer. The final word “Tod” was uttered without undue histrionics. This is a tough piece for the pianist too, and Peter Dugan was well-nigh perfect. Full marks! His Sibelius was a tour-de-force, exciting for sure, although you can tell the baritone was pushing his instrument to its limits. He also sang a terrific “Love Went A-Riding” by Frank Bridge, seemingly a favourite song in this competition!
Mezzo Clara Osowski, who was so impressive in the First Round, continued her excellence. Her silvery tone, musicality, and attention to textual nuances were very much in evidence. There was a wistfulness in her delivery, her eyes looking into the distance and a hint of a smile, that’s quite appealing. Her two Pierrot songs by Marx and Poulenc were wonderful. I must say Ms. Osowski has a very serious stage persona. In the First Round, she hardly broke into a smile except at the very end, after the last note was sung. She was slightly more relaxed in this round. In her last song, Thomson’s “Let’s Take a Walk” she even managed to be a bit funny. There are enough recitalists who mug their way through a program, so it’s kind of refreshing to have someone like her!
New Zealand baritone Julien Van Mellaerts sang Schubert, Mahler, Duparc, Faure, and Butterworth, a typical mix for an English singer. His modest-sized, light, soft-grained baritone capable of a variety of tone colours, and his attention to textual details makes him a fine recitalist. I particularly liked his Mahler from Das Knaben Wunderhorn, and his “Is My Team Ploughing” from Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad. His engaging stage persona really came through in these songs, and the advantage of having your own regular pianist play for you in a competition is not to be underestimated.
British soprano and Kathleen Ferrier Award winner Gemma Summerfield had the disadvantage of singing first, but it didn’t seem to faze her. She began with the beautiful “Die Liebende schreibt” by Mendelssohn, and she did it full justice. She then launched into the whole Ravel cycle, which she captured its spirit very well. If there’s one thing that took me awhile to get used to, it’s the flutter in her voice. But I do find her basic tone quality beautiful, and she’s a sensitive musician.