Gihoon Kim, from South Korea, a most modest personality possessed of a big baritone voice, took the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World’s main prize, the 20th since the competition’s inception. The warm embrace of the Cardiff audience may have been absent, the total thrill of voices bursting into bloom live in St David’s Hall irreplaceable, but that the competition still happened, was televised and produced a mighty handful of finalists as well as many other singers who made their mark, was a huge plus. It was also tribute to young singers whose careers have been on hold and perhaps permanently jeopardised.
A Rolls-Royce of a voice was how various commentators described Kim’s voice: in South Korea they’d probably prefer to call it a Lamborghini. Resonant, velvet, tender, he colours both sounds and words, with excellent Italian and German. Clearly channelling the young Bryn Terfel in his choice of Rossini and poetic Wagner, it was the fire of his aria from Giordano’s Andrea Chénier that was most authentic and authoritative. When winning his earlier round, his Korngold aria had two of the judges dabbing away tears.
Winner of the Joan Sutherland audience prize – voting based on the pre-final appearances – was the English mezzo Claire Barnett-Jones, reflecting her remarkable feat in stepping in at the eleventh hour as the official reserve and winning her round. She betrayed no nerves then – no time for that – and, in this final, her Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer from Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen showed the same fearsome immediacy.
The agility and brightness of Austrian Christina Gansch’s soprano was always evident, but her tendency to overegg the presentation and throw herself into every note could be distracting. By comparison, the sheer style and poise of the Georgian mezzo Natalia Kutateladze set her in a class of her own: with a fabulous clarinet richness in the lowest notes and a flutey quality in her runs, she brought a focused intensity to everything she sang.
Nel Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha, pure, was a soprano with the power to move, elegantly controlled and expressively used, with a natural serenity. She had already won the Song prize on Thursday night, but with Richard Strauss’s Beim Schlafengehen and her aria from Verdi’s Don Carlos, she gave notice of her vast future potential. Cardiff’s competition can still claim to spotlight the finest.