MUSIC / Early hopes: Tess Knighton on competition winners and international visitors

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The Independent Culture
The Early Music Network Young Artists' Competition does not yet have the profile it deserves, though holding the final round in an established venue like the Wigmore Hall is definitely a step forward, even if the attendance there last Thursday was rather disappointing. Perhaps a period-instrument category in the BBC Young Musician of the Year is called for . . . A further disappointment was that, of the four finalists, three were baroque chamber ensembles and the other a Lieder recital with fortepiano. We heard nothing earlier than Monteverdi (attrib): were there really no groups of potential working with earlier repertory? Apparently not - a further indication of the continuing lack of interest in medieval and Renaissance music in our schools and music colleges.

I had other reservations about the finalists: why did most of these promising young musicians choose repertory beyond their technical ability? Why was there so little shaping in their performances? And why is it apparently de rigueur for baroque groups to adopt ridiculous names? Les Agrements were relatively sensible in this respect, and they also turned in some polished playing, but it was no surprise that the laurels went to soprano Mhairi Lawson and fortepianist Olga Tversky. In songs by Haydn, Mozart and Schubert they displayed a maturity and technical fluency that made them natural winners. Well done. Yet I imagine their careers may well take them in other directions than historically aware performance.

On Saturday the Wigmore Hall was packed for the start of the Tchaikovsky Centenary Festival, in which the Borodin Quartet are presenting all three quartets by Tchaikovsky coupled with those by Brahms. And what a treat this first concert was, with near-immaculate playing and performances fuelled by unflagging inner passion. The range of tone colour, the variety of bow stroke and clarity of phrasing were simply astonishing.

Less enthralling was the appearance of the Vienna Philharmonic under Seiji Ozawa at the South Bank on Monday. This was the first of three concerts, with big-name conductors but fairly standard repertory, and the launch of the Friends of the VPO in the UK. The great and the good turned out in force. But great though the Vienna Phil undoubtedly has been - and still is in certain respects - it is our own London orchestras that need the support of such illustrious names (including the chairman of the Arts Council as a founder member) at the moment. Of course great international orchestras should visit this country but, on the basis of this concert, I think any of the London orchestras could have rivalled the Viennese players in terms of ensemble and wind intonation. True, the strings do have a distinctly creamy tone that was a definite asset in Dvorak's New World Symphony, and a brazen brass sound that added an appropriately sleazy edge to Bartok's Miraculous Mandarin suite. Sheer smoothness of line was not, however, what was required in Haydn's Symphony No 60.

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