Two Croatians (both baritones), two Russians (both sopranos), two Ukrainians (soprano and baritone) and two Koreans (soprano and tenor): that’s the line-up for the finals of the seventh Mirjam Helin International Singing Competition, set for Wednesday evening in the arena-like hall of the Helsinki Music Centre. The announcement was made – bang on time – an hour or so after the end of the fourth instalment of the semi-finals, which brought half-hour recitals by 19 singers.
It is, of course, de rigueur at a singing competition not to agree completely with the judges’ decision – even when the judges are as distinguished as they are here. Several singers who made a strong and positive impression on me didn’t make it through, but no doubt every member of the audience felt that too. Divergence of opinion – along with a sense of discovery – is one of things that make competitions so exciting.
The array of baritones in the semi-finals – five in all – was particularly impressive. For me, the Croatian Leon Kosavic, now a finalist, took pride of place. His Schubert lieder were extraordinarily intense, yet verbally and vocally precise, while the voice itself sounded full and mature (he is just 23), making a powerful impact in this large hall. It seems ideally suited to Austro-German repertoire and I wasn’t quite so sure about his aria from Donizetti’s Don Pasquale (which also featured too much comic stage business), but there is certainly a theatrical personality at work here.
Kosavic’s 28-year-old compatriot Matija Meić has a less firmly defined timbre, but he can both descend confidently into the bass register and achieve an almost tenorial clarity at the top. He strikes an authoritative and alert figure on stage – and how many other singers have ever followed a quintessentially English song cycle by Gerald Finzi (sung with sensitivity, humour and verbal clarity) with the macho bravura of ‘Cruda, funesta smania’ from Lucia di Lammermoor – capped with a thrilling, long-held top G?
The third baritone in the final is the Ukrainian Dmytro Kalmuchyn (who looks a little like Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe!). At the age of 21, he is already an imaginative artist, bringing colour, variety and insight to his interpretations, but his mellow voice still sounds ‘unfinished’, even a little raw, at certain moments. Kalmuchyn is undoubtedly a talent to watch in the years to come, though.
A baritone who didn’t make it through to the final – and who maybe deserved to – was the Korean Hansung Yoo, who opened the first session of the semi-finals. He has a strong, shining, Italianate timbre that he showed off to full operatic effect in Gérard’s stirring aria from Andrea Chénier.
Now to the soprano finalists …
The glamorous Ekaterina Morozova has a lovely sound – warm and velvety (and occasionally reminiscent of Renée Fleming) – and she was magnetic in Prokofiev’s Five Poems of Anna Akhmatova, but I was not sure if Imogene’s demanding scena from Bellini’s Il pirata made an ideal showcase for her; she was intrepid in its cascades of coloratura, but, to my ear at least, this kind of repertoire demands a sharper focus to the sound – and to the words. The full-bodied, silver-edged sound of her fellow-Russian Elena Guseva was deployed in German repertoire: Berg’s haunting and heady Sieben frühe Lieder and Agathe’s first aria from Der Freischütz. Although she sang conscientiously and accurately – and is a likeable, communicative presence of stage – a strong personality did not shine through her performances and, on a technical level, her vibrato loosened now and then.
Kateryna Kasper, from Ukraine, has a naturally charming light-lyric sound – springwater fresh, with a quick vibrato – but she also offered great sincerity and insight, especially when singing in German (Brahms, Schumann, and Grieg); by contrast, her French diction was not consistently clear in two delicious mélodies by Poulenc. An aria from Mozart’s early Mitridate, re di Ponto showcased an exquisite line and some pinpoint staccati.
The Korean Sunyoung Seo has a serene, but expressive stage presence, and her voice has similar qualities in its lower reaches – and her breath control is superb. She chose no less a work than Strauss’ deeply moving Vier letzte Lieder as her main offering. Her accompaniment here was on the piano, and it was skilfully handled by Kristian Attila, but Seo seemed to be thinking of the sumptuous orchestra that we usually hear in these pieces. Though fully in command of the music and words, she tended to sing too loudly, highlighting the cutting edge that her voice acquires at higher volume and pitch.
The tenor Beomjin Kim revels in the combination of high pitch and high volume, as he showed in Rachmaninov’s ’Do not sing to me …’ and Edgardo’s final aria from Lucia di Lammermoor. Though he can ring the rafters, he is also capable of an exquisite mezza voce – and there is a freshness and energy in his voice and style that no doubt smoothed his path to the final.
Singers that I will be sorry not to see on stage on Wednesday include the Romanian soprano Iulia Maria Dan and the Israeli-German mezzo-soprano Hagar Sharvit. As it happens, I saw Dan just over a week ago in a memorable performance of Mozart’s Il re pastore at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland, where the audience rather fell in love with her. In Helsinki, her singing was less disciplined and nuanced than in the Alps, which maybe explained her absence from the finals, but her distinctive, sensuously shimmering timbre – and her on-stage charisma – were just as much in evidence. I had seen Sharvit in London early in 2013 at the Handel Singing Competition in London, and in Helsinki I was once again taken with her dusky, contralto-like timbre and her sophistication as an artist. The highlights of her varied programme were two lieder: Brahms’ glorious Von ewiger Liebe and a hair-raising rendition of Schubert’s Erlkönig, a song which, with its headlong momentum and contrasting characters, makes a gripping miniature opera.
Yehuda Shapiro, based in London, is active as an opera critic and journalist, contributing to leading specialist magazines such as Opera and Classical Music, and to the website Sinfini. He has a special interest in the development of young vocal talent. In 2009, he reported on the Mirjam Helin Competition for Opera Now magazine and is delighted to be back in Helsinki for the 2014 edition, writing this time for Classical Music.