Benjamin Britten International Violin Competition

Written by: William Yeoman

A report on Stage One

Held in the resonant Great Hall of Goodenough College, Mecklenburgh Square, London WC1, and the Barbican Hall, this is a new biennial competition for aspiring young violinists. Organised by Chairman Major General Tim Toyne Sewell, Artistic Director Dmytro Tkachenko and Executive Director Heather Graves, and boasting patrons such as Yuri Bashmet, Pierre Boulez, Alfred Brendel and Ida Haendel, this new competition hopes to both foster young talent and highlight the artistic achievement of Benjamin Britten, especially in relation to his violin concerto, the performance of which is a requirement for the finalists. The competition’s jury is led by Ida Haendel.

The following short reviews are of recitals given during the morning sessions of each day of Round One. They were held in Goodenough College on 25-27 August 2004.

Shiori Hanai from Japan eased into the opening recital with a rather staid performance of Mozart’s Adagio (K261), loosening up a little only in the cadenza; there was however a more confident approach and greater variety of tone in the Rondo K373. The obligatory Britten followed, three movements from the Suite, Op.6, with a wryly-suggestive ‘March’, a delicately phrased ‘Lullaby’ and a ‘Waltz’ that benefited from a delicious holding back of the forward momentum. Hanai then threw all her cards on the table with Chausson’s Poème, Op.25: a good sense of the overall expressive arch of the piece was marred by her trying to give everything at once; the lugubrious opening, the impassioned recitativo, the waves of tension and relaxation seemed merely to tumble and clutter about in the hall. Paganini ended the recital, Hanai drawing considerably sonority from her instrument in the Amoroso (but blurring the Presto) of Caprice No.21; intonation problems in No.8 prevented some good ideas from manifesting themselves fully.

Germany’s Andreas Janke begun with a confident and extrovert performance of the Britten: the ‘March’ was faster and maybe less subtle than Hanai’s, the ‘Lullaby’ drawn with a more incisive tone and the ‘Waltz’ very brisk indeed (and not without some excessively harsh edges). Mozart’s Adagio in E followed, perhaps a little overplayed but full of character, before Janke gave assured performances of Paganini’s Caprices 8 and 11, both rendered with fluency and good intonation – though a little more rhythmic flexibility would have been welcomed. His performance of Lutoslawski’s Subito was really very fine, with a romantic, almost frenzied approach to the opening flourish as piece drove through chunky chords into a search for an elusive tonal centre. This impressive recital came to an end with Nathan Milstein’s Paganiniana, played with fire and verve.

Korean Jae-Young Kim’s recital began with the Britten, in which a lighter, mellow tone differentiated his performance from the previous two: confident phrasing, marked contrasts and a playful approach in the ‘March’ chimed with an expressive ‘Lullaby’ and a shining ‘Waltz’. A romantic, spacious Paganiniana preceded the real thing with Caprices 1 (crisp and comfortable) and 8 (a theatrically portentous opening let down by subsequently poor intonation). The first movement of Mozart’s D major concerto was very successful, Kim’s tone and style eminently suited to this music, although the cadenza, though impressive, seemed strangely incongruous. (Competitors were requested to supply their own.) This recital ended with Sarasate’s delightful Faust Fantasy, full of big tunes and even bigger chords, and handled with aplomb and a wonderful sense of rhetoric.

Another contestant from Japan, this time Michiko Kobayashi, boldly opened with a Brahmsian rendition of Schoenberg’s Fantasy Op.47, music to which she seemed temperamentally very suited. Then came the Britten, a ‘March’ of bounce and vitality, a stark ‘Lullaby’ and a rhythmically urgent ‘Waltz’. A very classical Beethoven Romance in F followed, the sparing use of vibrato and careful phrasing allowing the music to breathe lightly. Paganini’s Caprice 11, with nicely balanced chords in the Andante sections offsetting a furious Presto, led comfortably into the toccata-like No.12 and a satisfying if slightly insecure end.

The impressive Anna Reszniak from Poland opened the second day with Mozart’s Rondo (K373): elegant, refined and highly articulated. Her Paganini Caprice 3 featured a wide dynamic range and lively contrasts (the trills in the sostenuto sections exquisitely executed), while No.17 exhibited well-integrated musical intelligence. Britten’s ‘March’ was brought to life by great variety of colour, the ‘Lullaby’ was translucent and shimmering and the ‘March’ was well characterised. Reszniak ended her recital with a convincing performance of Saint-Saëns’s Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, of innuendo and insouciantly gypsy swagger.

She made way for Kiril Sharapov from the Ukraine, who never really seemed to be comfortable, which manifested itself in an aggression stance towards the music. The Beethoven Romance in F was maybe too broad in tempo, sounding rather laboured. Sharapov’s intonation took a while to settle; his interpretation was very straight and a tendency to favour a big tone resulted only in harshness. Similarly, the Paganini Caprices were colourless and devoid of fluency. The Britten was unappealing, with an aggressive ‘March’, a bland ‘Lullaby’ and a shapeless ‘March’ confounding the listener. Only in some Paganini variations did musicality begin to surface, with the varied effects being executed with flair and confidence by an increasingly relaxed player.

Day three saw another Ukrainian, Maxim Brylinsky and most impressive, with an attractive and varied programme. Maxim began with the first movement from Haydn’s Concerto in C, sensitively and idiomatically played. He then presented his Paganini Caprices: No.3 was very fluid, the octaves sonorous and the Presto dashed off with bravura (although lacking the clarity of Reszniak’s execution), while the arpeggios and wide intervals of No.11 were excitingly conceived if not absolutely accurate. The Britten was beautifully shaped and rich in detail, leading naturally to two more solo works: Bartók’s ‘Tempo di Ciaccona’ from the Sonata and Ysayë’s Sonata No.6. Brylinsky obviously has great affinity for this music: the Bartók was raw and exciting and the Ysayë expansive and expressive.

A Frenchman, Matthieu Arama, was next. He began his recital with the first movement of Mozart’s G major concerto – amid the rustling of a plastic bag from an insensitive member of the audience. It was a good, solid reading, although the opening phrases were awkwardly shaped; the polyphonic aspects in the cadenza, however, were clearly executed and apposite to the summary of the movement as a whole. The Britten was less impressive, with a rather hurried ‘March’, a curious lack of engagement in the ‘Lullaby’ and some too-angular rhythmic accents in the ‘Waltz’. The Paganini Caprices (3 and 15) were patchy. Wieniawski’s take on Faust was totally convincing and a wonderful way to end the recital.

Overall, then, a fine array of talent. Of those whom I reviewed, Shiori Hanai, Andreas Janke, Anna Reszniak, Matthieu Arama and Maxim Brylinsky made the Second Round, and Andreas Janke, Matthieu Arama and Maxim Brylinsky the Finals. Special prizes went to Ksenia Moroz (First Round) of the Ukraine and Ryo Mikami of Japan (Second). The competition pianists were Oleg Bezborodko, Nigel Hutchison and Andrew Zolinksy.

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