After a season of remarkably high standards, the finale to the 2017 edition of BBC Cardiff Singer of the World gave us five singers of exceptional quality. The momentary gasp which greeted Dame Kiri Te Kanawa announcing “The winner from Scotland...” was just that: if mezzo Catriona Morison was at first a surprise winner as the judges’ wildcard entry in the final, the more one thinks about it, the more it makes perfect sense.

Catriona Morison © BBC Wales (B Tarr)
Catriona Morison
© BBC Wales (B Tarr)

Having also picked up half of the Song Prize on Friday night, Morison approached her set, billed fourth in the programme, with completely unassuming modesty, allowing her distinctive mezzo-soprano to speak for itself rather than rely on extravagant shows of virtuosity. Hers was probably the best conceived set in addition to being the best sung; not only did her chosen Rossini, Strauss, Ravel and Purcell suit her voice well, but her chosen works demonstrated her obvious talent for bringing uncommon intimacy and introverted depth to her music. While Ariunbaatar Ganbaatar sang Figaro with bravura and Anthony Clark Evans showed just what a strong showman he is, Morison concluded with Dido’s famous lament When I am laid in earth with utmost restraint and control over the music and the audience, while balancing herself perfectly to the continuo accompaniment. Her voice, wonderfully woody in texture, brings beauty and meaning in great quantity to her music, and she was a very worthy winner.

The other singer to leave with a prize was Londoner Louise Alder, who picked up the Dame Joan Sutherland audience prize. Her quite unique programme gave us Bellini (I puritani), André Previn (A Streetcar Named Desire) and Léhar (Giuditta). Streetcar did not suit her quite so well as the Bellini, which she sang with great elegance in the smooth contours of her wonderfully fluid soprano. Her account of Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiss was relatively tasteful while still squeezing a good deal of rubato licence from the music. Her apparently effortless closing top B was a joy, especially when one remembers that after competing in the Song Prize on Friday night she sang Sophie in WNO’s Rosenkavalier in Cardiff Bay in a remarkable feat of stamina.

Australia’s Kang Wang was unlucky to come away without a prize. He carried himself with the confidence of an established high quality tenor as Eduardo (Lucia di Lammermoor) and the poets Lensky and Rodolfo in Eugene Onegin and La Bohème respectively. In the latter role especially, he sang with touching warmth and honesty, while hitting the top note of Che gelida manina with enough sound to fill the large space of St David’s Hall twice over. His singing of the full role in Dallas next year promises to be special.

American Anthony Clark Evans very clearly has enormous talent as a showman, not least for being a man who does not take himself too seriously. Having bonded with the audience within moments of coming on stage, he sang Bellini, Wagner and Leoncavallo with pleasing roundness in his baritone and convincing characterisation of each role, though his Wolfram (Tannhäuser) will probably be a few notches better in a couple of years.

The evening was bookended by Si può? Si può? from Pagliacci, with Ariunbaatar Ganbaatar, from Mongolia, opening proceedings and Evans giving the last word. Having triumphed in Friday’s Song Prize with Catriona Morison, hopes were high for Ganbaatar’s main prize entries. While he sang his Leoncavallo, Tchaikovsky and Rossini with what is obviously a very attractively coloured voice and apparently boundless vocal energy, the occasional moment felt to be just on the wrong side of the edge of the seat.

As for the orchestra, tonight the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, after contributions from their neighbours at Welsh National Opera through the week: one could not ask much more in playing for five singers, two conductors and over three hundred years of repertoire. Their chief conductor, Thomas Søndergård, got the best results from them, while WNO’s Tomas Hanus very often seemed to struggle to keep a lid on the orchestral sound.

It is easy to forget in searching for a winner that all five entrants tonight, and indeed all week, are thrilling musicians whose careers will be fascinating to follow. While Catriona Morison was a very deserving winner, all five made a strong case for themselves, and I for one can hardly wait for 2019.