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8 outstanding moments from the art song semifinal at the Montreal International Music Competition

By
Robert Rowat

And just like that, the semifinal of the art song division at the 2018 Montreal International Music Competition is over.

Eight singer–pianist duos each gave a 20- to 25-minute recital at Bourgie Hall; four of them have secured a spot in the final on Sunday, June 3. They are:

  • John Brancy, baritone (29, United States) and Peter Dugan, pianist (29, United States)
  • Clara Osowski, mezzo-soprano (32, United States) and Olivier Godin, pianist (not competing)
  • Gemma Summerfield, soprano (27, United Kingdom) and Sebastian Wybrew, pianist (34, United Kingdom)
  • Julien Van Mellaerts, baritone (30, New Zealand/United Kingdom) and João Araújo, pianist (33, Portugal)

While we wait for that — and to be honest, we can barely wait — let's take a minute to reflect on all the amazing music that went down during the semifinal.

We listened attentively to all eight recitals. Here, in chronological order, are the highlights that blew us away.

1. Julian Van Mellaerts and João Araújo's Mahler song

Baritone Julien Van Mellaerts draws you in with a lovely, conversational tone and then wows you with some pretty intense sound. That was the case in Mahler's "Zu Strassburg auf der Schanz," one of several songs on a war theme, in which Van Mellaerts at times employed a lovely voix mixte to great effect. What impressed us most of all, however, was the partnership between Van Mellaerts and João Araújo, whose impeccable timing on the sparse piano part captured the unrelentingly ominous atmsophere of the scaffold that awaits the song's protagonist. Chills. (12:00 in the video below.)

2. The best Bachelet

If it were possible to take Irina Jae-Eun Park's gorgeous lyric soprano and put it in a bottle, to be poured out liberally whenever one liked, we'd be a big step closer to world peace. How could anybody possibly be angry or hold a grudge when she's singing?

We heard a number of performances of Bachelet's charming mélodie "Chère nuit" in the first round, but none compared to Park's rendition in the semis. Effusive, gracious, heartfelt — what a beautiful moment she shared with us. (38:15, below.)

3. Axelle Fanyo's cabaret finale

For her semifinal recital, French soprano Axelle Fanyo programmed a wide variety of individual songs that gradually built momentum toward a cabaret-style number to close her set: Bolcom's "Amor." After enchanting the audience with her vivid storytelling in Caplet's "Le corbeau et le renard," she launched into "Amor" with gusto and good humour. (1:33:00, below.)

4. A lesson in Liszt

The name Franz Liszt is not the first that comes to mind when one thinks "art song," but he wrote extensively in the genre (in French, German and Hungarian) and we were excited to see mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb had programmed a set of three Liszt songs for her semifinal recital.

She and her piano partner, Martin Dubé, made an especially strong case for the first one, "Die drei Zigeuner," whose alternating slow and fast tempos, colourful piano effects and quasi-carnal low notes threw the song's three titular characters into vivid relief — a five-minute melodrama! (1:41:10, below.) We're sorry we won't hear Chaieb's Rachmaninoff set in the finals, but look forward to her Strauss, Mendelssohn and Massenet in the aria semis.

5. Gemma Summerfield's Ravel cycle

The 25-minute limit on the semifinal recital creates a programming challenge, since it's difficult to include a full set of songs and still have time to fulfill the language requirements. But Gemma Summerfield managed to work two short, but complete, sets into hers: Korngold's Drei Lieder, Op. 22, and Ravel's Cinq Mélodies Populaires Grecques.

The latter, especially, cast a spell not only over the audience at Bourgie Hall, but also over juror Kiri Te Kanawa, who has recorded the cycle twice and appeared delighted throughout Summerfield's performance. Pianist Sebastien Wybrew's piano introductions were small miracles. (12:45, below.)

6. Tomi Punkeri's dreamy Rautavaara song

If we didn't know better, we'd think the late Einojuhani Rautavaara had written his dreamy song "Sydämeni Laulu" with baritone Tomi Punkeri in mind — his velvety, round baritone seems ideally suited to the song's ethereal, floating lines. (41:00, below.)

The song's text was previously set by Sibelius and is well-known to Finns, including juror Soile Isokoski, whose gaze was fixed on Punkeri throuhgout.

7. John Brancy and Peter Dugan's Schumann song

Baritone John Brancy and pianist Peter Dugan had the audience on its feet, screaming, when they concluded their semifinal recital with John Charles Thomas's show-stopping, Dr. Seussian "The Green-Eyed Dragon." It was the culmination of a program whose songs flowed seamlessly, one into the other, leaving us almost breathless.

But, walking home afterwards, we had the strains of one song in particular resonating in our heads: "Auf einer Burg," the seventh song from Schumann's Liederkreis (1:23:50, below.) It's an austere song and Brancy and Dugan brought the perfect balance of restraint and intensity to it, building drama through the rising harmonic/melodic sequence that concludes both verses. (A much-needed oasis after the hair-raising "Erlkönig" that preceded it.)

8. Osowski's Schubert

There was more seamless song-sequencing from mezzo-soprano Clara Osowski in her semifinal recital, most notably during her mini Pierrot set, which had us on the edge of our seat. But her recital's highlight had to be the opening three Schubert songs, which she sang with calm grace and an evenly produced sound completely unfettered by tension (1:42:20, below.)

Fun fact: Canadian contralto Maureen Forrester got her start singing in the choir at Erskine and American Church (now Bourgie Hall) and while we listened to Osowski sing, we couldn't help comparing her dignified way with Lieder, while unique, to Forrester's. It made us incredibly happy.

More to explore:

Watch the 2018 Montreal International Music Competition

Meet our 'phantom jurors' for the 2018 Montreal International Music Competition

Aria semifinalists announced at the 2018 Montreal International Music Competition