As Brian McMaster walked out onto the stage at St David’s Hall in Cardiff on 17 June 1989, five brilliant young singers were standing in the wings, hoping that the managing director of Welsh National Opera was about to say their name. Over the course of the evening, Helen Adams, Monica Groop, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Hillevi Martinpelto and Bryn Terfel had all done their bit to impress, but now came the moment of truth. ‘The winner of the 1989 Cardiff Singer of the World Competition,’ announced McMaster, ‘is Dmitri Hvorostovsky.’
Most people in the hall or watching on TV were already sure that one of two names would be read out: either Hvorostovsky, a 26-year-old baritone from Russia, or Wales’s very own Terfel, a bass-baritone and Hvorotosvky’s junior by three years. In the final, Hvorostovsky had wowed the audience with Verdi, while Terfel had impressed with Wagner. So closely matched were the pair that the final would become known as the ‘Battle of the Baritones’.
Launched in 1983 to mark the opening of the Welsh capital’s St David’s Hall, the biannual Cardiff Singer of the World – the ‘BBC’ prefix wouldn’t be added until 2003 – was itself still very much in its infancy as a competition. It had, however, enjoyed the best possible start when charismatic Finnish soprano Karita Mattila took the first ever Cardiff crown, setting the winner’s bar impressively high in the process.
Hvorostovsky was confident of his chances. ‘I’d already won two major competitions, in Russia and France,’ he later recalled. ‘By the time I got to Cardiff I was unbelievably arrogant and ignorant and thought I was experienced. I never doubted that I was going to win until a few minutes before I had to sing in the final, when I heard Bryn singing full out and saw the audience’s reaction. He had such a luxurious, beautiful voice… that it almost knocked me over.’
Terfel had set his sights a little lower.Having only taken up singing seriously at 18, he saw his career developing more parochially. ‘All I was thinking about was where we were going to live,’ he later told BBC Music. ‘We’d just bought a property outside Penarth, and I was going to be in Welsh National Opera for the rest of my life, while my wife was going to teach locally.’ Waking up on the first morning of the competition without a voice probably hadn’t helped his confidence either.
By the time of the final, though, both singers were firing on all cylinders, as impresario Matthew Epstein, a member of the jury, remembered. ‘I’m sitting with Elisabeth Söderström, the great Swedish soprano,’ he told BBC TV, ‘and on stage comes this Russian baritone looking sensational. I look over towards Elisabeth and on her pad of paper she puts an exclamation point as soon as he walks out. By the time he’s finished, her paper is full of exclamation points! Bryn was [also] brimming with talent in a most extraordinary way, but it was not as refined quite yet. I think I gave Dmitri 9.85, and Bryn 9.8. It was so close.’
Though Terfel had to settle for a runners-up spot on the night, the Welshman did at least enjoy the consolation of the Lieder Prize. And, despite the notorious ‘battle’ tag, the two singers showed huge mutual respect throughout their careers. Sadly, Hvorostovsky’s was cut cruelly short when, in November 2017, he died of brain cancer. And one of the first tributes to appear on Twitter came from his erstwhile rival. ‘RIP to the king of the 1989 Cardiff Singer of the World,’ wrote Terfel. ‘He certainly inspired us all to pull our socks up. Confident, crazy, talented, caring man.’
We named both Hvorostovsky and Terfel two of the greatest baritones that have made an impact on the world stage in recent years