Martha Guth won the 2007 International Song Competition finals at London's Wigmore Hall - and deservedly so. She was also a finalist in the same competition in 2003 and has won a number of other singing prizes. I'm going to stick my neck out and make a prediction: this superb singer is going to be an international star. "One to watch" and "Up and coming" would be putting it far too wishywashily in this case.
Regular readers will know I'm a picky pedant, not exactly the easiest person to please, and I'm pretty good at noticing issues or problems with all sorts of things, from Web services, software and mobile phones to, well, singing and singers. I don't often hand out rave reviews.
But I will say this again: Martha Guth is going to be a star, or there ain't no justice in this world. She absolutely stands out. Once in a generation, maybe twice, we'll get a singer who just holds the attention, captures the popular imagination, becomes a cultural icon. Again, I will stick my neck out and say that Martha Guth ought to be one such singer. And I've heard many excellent, world-class singers, live or in recordings, in my time. (I pretend to sing a little sometimes, myself). To be great, you need more than just fabulous technique - you need a certain je ne sais quois. Very, very few people have it, never mind singers. Martha Guth has it, in spades.
I searched for her name on Google after the concert and found mention of her ‘intuitive sensitivity’ (Montreal Gazette) and her ‘thrilling top range, rare breath control and an awesome legato’ (Globe and Mail). I couldn't agree more.
She has the sort of charismatic voice, almost hypnotic in its pleasing quality, that makes you hold your breath and close your eyes; the sort of voice you could just listen to and listen to and listen to and never get tired of, but still want to hear more. And it's not just the warmth and quality of her tone. What struck me first and most of all was her emotional range, the way she could convey the feeling of the song just through her singing even if you didn't understand a word of German or French or whatever. To me, that has to be foremost for any singer - it doesn't matter how perfect your technique is, if you don't move me I'm not interested. Martha Guth can move you.
Her choice of repertoire was very interesting and varied too, yet she was clearly fluent and at home singing in all the different languages involved, conveying the nuances with ease and sensitivity: two songs by Copland, a Ravel, two by Poulenc, one Rachmaninov, a very moving song Walt Whitman in 1989 by Chris DeBlasio (poem by Parry Brass), and ending with two by Richard Strauss. To top it all, she had such rare, seemingly effortless breath control (I have to echo that review) and lightness of touch, for notes both forte and pianissimo, that she was in a totally different league from the other finalists - and you already have to be world class to get that far. You could sense that there was a lot more power there, if she had wanted to belt it out more she very easily could have. The audience just cheered and cheered and cheered, me included.
It also doesn't hurt that she's a tall, commanding redhead. Dontcha just hate her now?! She's done a lot of lieder / song and opera; her bio doesn't seem to mention oratorio much however, except Carmina Burana. I'd love to have heard her in that. I'd love to see her in an opera.
Lest you think I'm going to be all boringly sycophantic and uncritically genuflectory in my praise, I'm not simply going to skate over any rough patches. She's a high soprano, very obviously. Her top notes were divine, but there were a couple of points earlier on in her performance where it was clear that middle C and below isn't quite her forte, at least not yet. The thing is, objectively you could hear that those notes weren't as solid, that she might have struggled a bit in that range, compared with the rest - but frankly, such was the way she drew you in, that you really didn't care.
As any singer knows, your accompanist can make all the difference, and the fine playing of Spencer Myer did Martha proud.
The impressive panel of judges (or jury as they put it) included pianist, vocal accompanist and lieder expert Graham Johnson, Edinburgh International Festival director Sir Brian McMaster, Irish mezzo Ann Murray DBE and American soprano Christine Brewer. I'm glad that they agreed with the popular choice here, although I think there really was no contest - if they'd given the 1st prize to anyone else at all, people would have been yelling "Fix!".
I also agreed with their 2nd prize award to versatile and engaging tenor Robin Tritschler, but was a little surprised that they gave the 3rd prize to tenor Ben Johnson. I think that the 3rd prize should have gone to imposing bass Matthew Rose or multi-award (including Kathleen Ferrier Award) winning Katherine Broderick, myself. I do have a weakness for a true deep resonant bass voice, I confess.
Ben Johnson was fine enough, of course, but it seemed to me his lower notes were not strong, and more to the point, maybe because of nerves, in terms of presence and ability to captivate the audience I personally think the others were streets ahead. I have to confess that I switched off during Ben Johnson's slot, as did the friend I went with. But I guess the jury were looking for singing technique more than interaction with the audience. The other finalist Katherine Broderick wasn't perhaps on top form, unfortunately for her; her stage presence was undeniable, but many of her high notes were audibly not as secure as they could have been.
Anyway, I'm now going to look out for any future performances by Martha Guth in London. I plan to go to as many as I can get tickets to. I've already searched for her CDs to buy up, but sadly I can't find anything. I've found out that she's done recordings, I just need to get hold of them!
If you ever get the chance to hear Martha Guth live, seize it - you won't regret or forget the experience.