In the world of song recitals there’s a national hierarchy: this favours Franco-German repertoire and leaves the English some way down the pecking order, jostling for position with the Russians and the Spanish.
But it isn’t fair. Between them, Britten, Butterworth, Vaughan Williams and their like produced a treasury of song that stands comparison with almost anything. And it was celebrated in the British Art Song Competition that ran last month as part of the larger London Song Festival.
As competitions go, it’s an odd set-up – as it’s not based on immaculately turned-out concert readings, but on masterclass performances. It is full of hesitations and errors, as the “master” of the masterclass – who in this case was the baritone Sir Thomas Allen – gives his charges professional advice. At the same time, he keeps score, as a judge. Allen has spent a lifetime with this English repertoire as one of its supreme exponents, so he is someone you would trust to make the right decisions.
Watching masterclasses isn’t always comfortable: it’s such a blatant exercise of power over the still-developing and vulnerable. But when they work, you feel you’re witnessing a minor miracle, as the performer leaves the platform able to do something he or she couldn’t do 20 minutes earlier. And the turnover of miracles on this occasion was prodigious. Singers who arrived inhibited and awkward blossomed into storytellers. Dull and muzzled voices opened up with brightness. And in every case the transformation was accomplished by the simplest means: a well-judged word of wisdom that made all the difference.
If there was a theme to Allen’s wisdom it was that the singer must do more to communicate. “Let us in on the secret” was a standard comment. And when it came to judgment time, the singer deemed to let us in most effectively was a young baritone called Thomas Isherwood – with my own favourite, Felix Kemp, another baritone, in second place. Both had immediate talent and still more potential. Given time, they’ll have good careers.
Meanwhile, the 2016 Hampstead Arts Festival moved into its second week with jazz pianist Gwilym Simcock playing a live, largely improvised accompaniment to a classic silent movie: Alfred Hitchcock’s debut film The Lodger, made in 1927 and starring Ivor Novello. Live accompaniments to films are much in vogue – I mentioned an orchestral one in this space only last week – but they make immense demands of a performer’s creativity, responsiveness and stamina. And Simcock had it all. In one great tour de force he sat down at the keyboard and played brilliantly for more than two hours without pause or hesitation – like a panellist on Just a Minute but lasting considerably longer. Just to hear it was exhausting. In a good way.
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