Soprano Harriet Burns (UK) started us off with what is evidently her characteristic emotional range and the sense, like a glow, that she enjoys herself even when singing about the unfathomable torment of yearning youths. Though her voice sounded more modest than in her first appearance, she continued to use it with great intelligence and attentive shading, capable of giving a sinister kiss to a line like “Dort, hinter den Bergen im scheidenden Strahl” from Schubert’s “Atys”.
Longer programs and slower tempos favoured more complex voices, the embroiderers and the watchmakers. Mezzo-soprano Deepa Johnny (Canada / Oman) and baritones Michael Lafferty (UK), Bryan Murray (USA), and Arvid Fagerfjäll (Sweden) struggled to find a way out of the sticky tar. Fagerfjäll fought the hardest, a valiant effort that ranged from refreshingly boisterous to streamrolleresque. He sang Ravel’s 1906 setting of Jules Renard’s 1896 poem “Le cygne,” a deadpan lament about a swan that’s exhausting itself trying to catch the reflections of clouds in the water, right until the end: “Mais qu’est-ce que je dis? / Chaque fois qu’il plonge, il fouille du bec la vase nourrissante et ramène en ver. / Il engraisse comme une oie.”
Murray took a subtler approach. He tends his phrases like a patient gardener, coaxing some lines and letting others sleep. He might not grab you, but he sneaks up like a sudden bloom of shocking colour from an innocuous seedling. I think if he hadn’t been last, I would have more to say about his unaffected and measured performance.
Only soprano Meredith Wohlgemuth (USA) sounded better than she had in the first round and she also managed to pick a program that didn’t need a suicidal ideation warning label. She fizzed and crackled in Poulenc’s “Trois poèmes de Louise Lalanne” and three songs from Lionel Daunais “Fantaisie dans tous les tons,” the only Canadian rep we heard that had any guts, but best of all was her thrilling performance of Joseph Schwantner’s “Shadowinnower.” The piece is an intensely dramatic silver hammer to the head, full of hairpin turns of mood, piercing cries and sudden hushes. She owned it, and pianist Jinhee Park was also magnificent. I’d threaten the jury again if they don’t put Wohlgemuth in the finals, but we know how that worked out last time.
We return on Sunday for the Art Song finals and until then we try to shake off the melancholy.
*The finalists are Harriet Burns, Brian Murray, and Meredith Wohlgemuth.