|Bach Winner: Jessica Dandy|
Just before we went, though, I was honoured to be part of a beautiful Bach event a little closer to home. For many years the London Bach Society, founded in 1946, has run an annual LBS Bach Singers Prize, designed to encourage young singers to come to Bach's music with enthusiasm, stylistic awareness and appropriateness of approach. This year they invited me to join the jury, where I found myself working with two eminent Bach singers, Ian Partridge and Stephen Roberts, and the oboist and conductor Anthony Robson.
It was a full-on experience, to put it mildly. We started off with a first round in which we listened to around 40 singers in one day, performing arias and recitatives, from which we chiselled out ten semi-finalists who returned a few days later to present extracts from the St Matthew and St John Passions. Ten had to become four...and the competition closed with a final in the ancient church of St Bartholemew-the-Great (for those who haven't been there, it's the setting for the climactic scene of Four Weddings and a Funeral, where Anna Chancellor whacks Hugh Grant with the bouquet...).
Our final was unusual as we had four very different voices to enjoy: a soprano, a counter-tenor, a tenor and a contralto. The repertoire, with a Martin Luther leaning for the Reformation anniversary, was mostly drawn from the cantatas, and was in many cases quite unusual. The London Bach Players, who accompanied that night, had just a couple of days to learn some very tricky stuff indeed (our continuo player, who switched apparently effortlessly between organ and harpsichord, later showed me a photo of himself holding the heap of scores just after the repertoire was announced...).
It wasn't easy for us either. Our young professionals were at a tremendous level and of course there's that platitude about apples and oranges. The soprano Rebecca Lea prepared an intriguing programme on the theme of masters and servants; in the semi-final she'd moved us all to tears with her account of 'Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben' from the St Matthew Passion. The fine tenor Hiroshi Amako went all-out for drama, choosing music that explored the storms inherent in "being a Christian". Counter-tenor Alex Simpson projected a vividly characterised programme about faith. They were all splendid and I look forward to hearing them many more times in future.
But our prize in the end went to the contralto Jessica Dandy, whose spirituality and sheer love for the music she sings was complemented by a voice that yielded more and more of its intriguing reserves as the competition went along. She offered a richness of colour that varied yet impressed across the registers, and a natural, direct style that did credit to her artistry and Bach's too. I was very moved by her "Erbarme dich" in round 1 and was keen to hear her again: she didn't disappoint. And the aria "Vegnügte Ruh" from Cantata BWV 170 is my new favourite thing in the whole world, thanks to her.
Congratulations from one Jess to another - and may your singing bring everyone joy for many years to come!