Guildhall School of Music & Drama Gold Medal

Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.54
Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.85
Piano Concerto No.3 in C, Op.21

Diana Ionescu (piano)

Brian O’Kane (cello)

Martyna Jatkauskaite (piano)

Guildhall Symphony Orchestra
Peter Stark

Prize adjudicators: James Gaffigan, Nicholas Mathias, Tom Service, Peter Stark and Jonathan Vaughan (chairman)

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 5 May, 2010
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

In his speech before the awarding of the Gold Medal for 2010, Jonathan Vaughan, the judges’ chairman and the GSMD’s director of music, linked the value of the School’s most glittering gong to the three soloists to another group of soloists engaged in a similar process of election. It isn’t stretching the point too much to point out that the winner, the Lithuanian pianist Martyna Jatkauskaite wore a stunning royal blue gown; that the second prize went to the Romanian pianist Diana Ionescu, who was sporting a red flower on her elegantly simple black dress; and that the third prize went to the Irish cellist Brian O’Kane, whose beautiful cello was made of a light, orange-coloured wood. Prophetic or what? At the time of writing, only time will tell.

It soon became clear that Martyna Jatkauskaite, a seasoned recitalist, was bound to win. Her dazzling, fluent and self-assured virtuosity servicing Prokofiev’s predominantly extrovert Third Piano Concerto did give rise to the thought that placing it last in the programme (which made musical sense) might have given her the edge in the event of any judicial dispute. Her aristocratic brilliance, full of punchy, rhythmic verve, suited this show-off work to the hilt, but for all her regal dispatch of the concerto’s extreme demands, Jatkauskaite wasn’t too posh for some purely visceral heroism, especially in those tension-building semiquaver tornados in the first movement. In her head-down, I’m-the-soloist way, she was stunning, and it was no surprise that she swept the board in a very un-hung way. Before this voter commits, though, he’d like to hear her in music less furiously diamantine and emotionally straightforward.

Elgar’s Cello Concerto is one of those works that the older you get, the more likely you are to think that you have ‘got’ it, in terms of its balancing act between resignation and despair, the hardening of doubt and the quiet letting-go of assumptions generally based on confounded hope and aspiration. There were moments in Brian O’Kane’s performance that were nakedly raw and tender – the coda in particular really hit the spot – and he was tactfully sparing in his use of the cello’s vernacular sobs, which can quickly ease this most subtle work into mawkish bathos. But I can see why he didn’t win – in the big passages, he strained for contrast, and in the winding first movement there was a broad-brush Byronic romanticism that didn’t suit the music’s oblique questing for direction, and which felt a bit manufactured. For all that, though, he got tantalisingly close to expressing the melancholy spirit of this elusive work.

Had I been the judge, I would have gone for Diana Ionescu’s performance in the Schumann Piano Concerto. For one thing, there were so many layers to it – flashes of Argerich-type bravura and temperament back-to-back with those blissful moments of reserve we recall from Pires at her most focussed. I loved the way Ionescu injected the concerto’s characteristic falling phrases with just enough edge to keep them from becoming just a bit too compliant, and there was a chamber-music rapport with the orchestra reminiscent of Nigel Kennedy at his considerable best. On a few occasions, she let herself down with some rather foursquare phrasing, but in general she had the measure of the work’s poetry and spontaneity. It was a lovely, fresh and, above all, interesting performance.

The Guildhall Symphony Orchestra was on cracking form (giving a very fine Mahler 9 recently, conducted by James Gaffigan, one of the judges), satisfyingly responsive in the Schumann and Elgar, impressively virtuosic in the Prokofiev; and the way Peter Stark oiled the ebb and flow between orchestra and soloist gave great pleasure.

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