MUSIC / Nights at the circus: Annette Morreau on the starry line-up for the Manchester International Cello Festival

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The Independent Culture
You don't lose. Somebody else wins.' An acute observation about competitions made by the great Hungarian cellist, Janos Starker, who was in Manchester last week to receive an 'Award of Distinction' from his peers and colleagues. Another place may have won the 1996 Olympic Games, but Manchester might well celebrate its achievement over the past eight years in hosting a biennial festival of music no less Olympian in its ideals and arguably more successful in welding together an international community.

The RNCM Manchester International Cello Festival is the brain-child of Ralph Kirshbaum, who is not only one of today's finest cellists, but also an organiser, cajoler, proselytiser and visionary extraordinaire. For his fourth festival, Kirshbaum succeeded last week in luring under one roof most of the world's greatest cellists - Starker, Yo Yo Ma, Zara Nelsova, Aldo Parisot, Boris Pergamenschikow, Frans Helmerson, Thomas Demenga, Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi, Colin Carr, Steven Isserlis, Heinrich Schiff - and not just to perform, but to teach and mingle.

That such leading players were willing to put in so much time (for expenses only) might suggest that cellists are a particularly generous species. Perhaps, but it seems more likely that, in this hurried world, it was a grateful response to a rare chance of mixing with colleagues, meeting today's outstanding young talent, and affirming the joy of music-making. As Yo Yo Ma exclaimed, listening to the cacophony of Dvorak, Haydn, Bach and Strauss emerging simultaneously from a throng of young cellists trying out bows, instruments and techniques on the concourses of the Royal Northern College of Music - 'Wow, what a zoo]'

Kirshbaum's festival includes all aspects of cello 'application' - concerts, master classes, improvisation, physical / medical problems and an important international bow- and instrument-making competition - French and American makers took the awards this year.

There was even a substantial new work, commissioned from the American composer, Yehudi Wyner, for Kirshbaum and the BBC Philharmonic. The morning master classes, too, revealed some greatly talented youngsters. As Janos Starker remarked during his session: 'Last night, I thought the present was guaranteed. This morning, I know the future is guaranteed.' He had been teaching the 14-year-old Richard Harwood.

The evening concerts risked becoming a circus as a succession of remarkable cellists went through their paces in concerts of solo repertoire, sonatas, and orchestral work. But Kirshbaum's careful planning, this year focused on lesser-known 19th- and 20th-century repertoire, together with careful juxtaposing of contrasting personalities - the big-toned Swedish cellist Helmerson versus the finely spun sound of the Japanese Tsutsumi - kept things on course. Playing to peers seemed to bring out the best, even if Steven Isserlis remarked after his rapt performance of Britten's Third Suite that he'd never been more terrified.

If there was one dominating presence, it was Janos Starker, now in his 70th year. His undemonstrative but intense performance with the BBC Philharmonic and Yan Pascal Tortelier of Bartok's Viola Concerto, in the arrangement by Serly, and his classically poised playing of the Brahms E minor Sonata (deputising for an indisposed David Geringas) will long be remembered. There were many moving moments in this festival but, if Lalo's preposterous D minor concerto gets taken up by every cellist under 20, just blame Yo Yo Ma.

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