Benjamin Britten International Violin Competition – Finals

Four finalists playing two concertos each over two evenings – 1 and 2 August 2004

Andreas Janke
Simone Lamsma
Matthieu Arama
Maxim Brylinsky (violins)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Volodymyr Sirenko
Jan Wagner


Ida Haendel (Chairman)
Ik-Hwan Bae
Maurice Hasson
Bogodar Kotorovych
Igor Oistrakh
György Pauk
Sylvia Rosenberg
Krzysztof Wegrzyn
Wanda Wilkomirska

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 2 August, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The first Benjamin Britten International Violin Competition has now run its course. The results are awaited by the general public – and will be divulged at the Laureates Gala Concert on 3 August.

Over two evenings in the Barbican, each of the four finalists played Britten’s concerto (mandatory) and one concerto (written no later than 1915) of their choice. For the record, the 24 contestants that started the Competition at Goodenough College, London WC1 on 25 August had opted to play, should the Final have been reached, mostly concertos by Sibelius (7 nominations), Brahms (5) and Tchaikovsky (5). That ‘bulk’ was supplemented by singular choices for Elgar, Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, Mozart G major (K216), Saint-Saëns B minor, Glazunov, Mendelssohn E minor and Paganini No.1. Nobody chose Max Reger’s hour-long concerto!

And the listening ambience was virtually ideal. My heart sunk on entering the auditorium, though – the stage was brightly lit (uncharacteristic of the Barbican); but fortunately the extra stage lighting was brought down to normal for the performances; in addition the hall lights were reduced to virtually nothing, which aided listening and concentration immeasurably. There was though the logo on either side of the platform, which caught the eyes irritatingly during the music-making (it’s fine at other times), which didn’t seem to be there on the Sunday or during the first concerto on Monday.

The Competition has been a success and has set high standards of adjudication: the second stage should have been of 12 players but the Jury could only nominate 8, which accounts for this writer not having heard any of the competitors then or Michael Berkeley’s test-piece, Persistent Memory. On arriving at Goodenough College last Friday lunchtime anticipating hearing at least two violinists, I found I had missed the boat; the 8 had all played by then!

I heard just two violinists in the first round. I was disappointed by both and neither made it through to the second round. One thing was clear: the obligatory Paganini Caprices are fiendish pieces, as the rather careful, far from impressive renditions that I heard demonstrated.

The Finals, with a consistently excellent Royal Philharmonic under the vivid, not always lucid Volodymyr Sirenko and the more precise Jan Wagner, didn’t necessarily nominate an obvious winner. Maxim Brylinsky is as confident as they come, and has the good looks to adorn a CD cover (one of the prizes is to record for Naxos), but his Brahms wasn’t calamity-free and proved rather soulless and unengaging. Tim Watts’s oboe solo at the start at the second movement was the highpoint. One could call Brylinsky professional, and such performances do win competitions. Sirenko’s conducting was rather stodgy. Brylinsky’s account of the Britten underlined the work’s Bartók and Prokofiev relationships. Sirenko played beautifully, and with precision in the scherzo; yet he had succumbed to unconvincing Vengerov-like throbbing by the end. Wagner conducted with clarity.

Yet none of the finalists seemed wholly inside the pre-second-war prophecies that Britten’s piece can generate; although all four had the notes very securely learnt. Matthieu Arama was perhaps the most genuinely artistic of the finalists. His Britten (Wagner) – just the first movement (he was suffering acute tendonitis) – ran the gamut between indifferent and sweetly sentimental, but he engaged and did so too in the first movement of the Sibelius (Sirenko), which was magnetic and involving, subtle and demonstrative. Could he win with concerto torsos? Could he win given the Laureates Concert requires a complete performance of the Britten? This time with the LSO and Andrew Davis.

Of the other finalists, Andreas Janke was sensitive and unaffected in the Britten (Sirenko) if rather too complacent, and lively and communicative (livelier and more communicative than Brylinsky that is) in the Brahms (Wagner), but here his tone was noticeably acerbic, and he wasn’t always alive to when his is an accompanying role. But, then, none of the finalists really seemed too worried about what the orchestra was doing, save for fitting in.

Simone Lamsma produced a rich tone and generous expression for the Tchaikovsky (Wagner), but she was also rather studied too – there was beguiling woodwind playing in the ‘Canzonetta’ – and the finale was deftly played: confident if a little cool, which also characterised her Britten (Sirenko).

Does a first prize have to be given? There’s a case for a shared second for Janke and Lamsma. Arama was the most interesting player – probably too much so to win and his semi-indisposition won’t have helped. In a few hours we will know. Or maybe the Competition’s website has the answer already!

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