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Royal College of Music String Player of the Year 2006. Wigmore Hall, London. 18.06.06 (ED)

The Harpham String Quartet:
S Barber: String quartet, op.11

Kokila Gillett, violin and Alexander Boyd, piano:
JS Bach: Largo from Sonata for violin solo no.3
WA Mozart: Allegro con spirito from Sonata for piano and violin no.18, K.301
C Debussy: Allegro vivo from Sonata for violin and piano in G
R Shchedrin: In the style of Albeniz

Nils Klöfver, guitar:
L Brouwer: Sonata for guitar solo

Minat Lyons, cello and Madeleine Mattar, piano:
C Debussy: Cello sonata
S Rachmaninov: Vocalise

Anna Cashell, violin and Elena Nalimova, piano:
R Schumann: Violin Sonata no.1, op.105
K Szymanovski: Nocturne and Tarantella, op.28

Having reviewed the RCM String Player of the Year concert in 2005, I thought that I knew the formula. But no; a different year, a different format. With fewer players vying for the prize this year the event took on the definite feel of a showcase rather than a competition.

The afternoon began with an all too rare performance of Barber’s String Quartet by the Harpham string quartet, recently named RCM Quartet of the Year. The opening Molto Allegro e Appassionato carried a driven energy about it that emphasised the unison writing and notable contributions from the lower string lines. The second movement, Adagio, is rarely performed in this form, being far better known in its Adagio for Strings orchestral incarnation, completed at the request of Toscanini. The sparser textures however lent the individual lines an extra poignancy due to the harmonious and unforced blending of each sonority into the whole. The brief third movement appeared akin to a coda, with its fluctuating power initially indicating that a tussle for direction shaped by the precedents of mood set by the first movements was in progress. Momentary repose though gave way to a final flourish of strength and passion. The Harpham Quartet’s performance left no doubt that this is a work that is scandalously under-performed.

The competition element got underway with a quartet of performances from violinist Kokila Gillett. An audacious beginning was held in prospect with the Largo from Bach’s third sonata for solo violin, but for me the mystery of the piece was not totally captured. This does not take away from the bright tone that Gillett projected, or that she succeeded in unifying the phrasing remarkably well over the broad tempo. The Mozart Allegro con spirito was strongly announced thoroughly clearly articulated rhythms, though the movement also possessed a strong dialogue between violin and piano.

It was with the Debussy however that Gillett’s performance really began to come alive, perhaps indicating a greater level of comfort with the music or perhaps the hall. Showing rich tone in the lower range, Gillett included flashes from the top register with ease at speed, though she seemed equally unafraid of holding the movement’s long lines so as to juxtapose the contemplative with powerful passions that distantly recalled Spanish influences. This created an easy link to the Shchedrin, which has as one of its main concerns the display of extreme effects drawn from the idiom of Albinez. That Gillett explored many of the tonal and rhythmical complexities set for her showed the possible direction she could follow. Here, at her best, she demonstrated that she can be an exciting player to listen to, even if that excitement does not yet extend across all her repertoire.

That Nils Klöfver chose to pin his hopes on becoming the String Player of the Year on a single piece struck me as rather odd: was he perhaps putting himself at a disadvantage? With several pieces one has - providing the variety within them allows it – the opportunity to show a greater palette of moods and means of expression. But then, as with Gillett – for me at least – the first two pieces counted for little, does more actually count for more in a competition situation? This is just one of such questions that surface on such occasions.

Klöfver’s choice, however, was a shrewd one, for Brouwer’s solo guitar sonata has contrast enough within its three movements. The first allowed for a sparseness and simplicity of texture to make itself amply heard, much of the writing being akin to inferences of statements rather than the statements themselves. The second movement was formed of a stronger rhythmically alertness, which Klöfver projected without ever resorting to hardness of tone. The baroque inferences that entered the third movement helped to show the not quite direct view of the guitar’s heritage taken by Brouwer in his writing. A performance notable for its sensitivity to line.

Minat Lyons, however, took sensitivity for idiom and line in her playing to a completely new level in this competition. Debussy’s short and tense cello sonata tested her mettle with its long solo lines, which in fairness were richly prolonged by her accompanist Madeleine Mattar. In basing the sonata loosely around the puppet character Pierrot, Debussy assigns much of the character to the cello, leaving the piano to become the backcloth to the show. Playful pizzicato was on display from Lyons and this effectively interspersed the mellifluously bowed line also present. Some measure of the tragedy felt as Pierrot had his strings cut came through in Lyon’s bold slicing gestures, leaving little doubt about the finality of Debussy’s musical statement.

Rachmaninov gave Lyons the opportunity to show what she could do with a finely paced cello line. The upper mid range was particularly rich and well focussed, projecting much of the romance in the writing. Final mention must go to the exhuberant performance of Mattar, whose playing found a pleasing balance with Lyons’.

Anna Cashell’s chosen pieces by Schumann and Szymanovski allowed her free reign to explore the wilder side of the violin repertoire. As adjudicator Philip Sheppard was to point out, Schumann’s volatile nature is encapsulated in this work. I found the inner turmoil it contains a touch slow to take full flight, but when it did it was justly forthrightly given. Emotion knew few bounds for both the composer and Cashell in her searching reading.

Szymanovski in the Nocturne demands dynamic control of an extreme level against a piano accompaniment that conveys the brooding atmosphere of night in spades. That both performers managed to restrain themselves sufficiently after the exhuberance of the Schumann saws much for their chameleon like ability to alter with the mood. No sooner had they successfully established this new colour Szymanovski tested the ability further by pitching them both headlong into the Tarantella. Their playing ripped along it at a blistering tempo – as it should – but rarely neglected nuances of tonal colouring. With a sense of real danger in the playing this was edge of the seat stuff. Both players delighted in the dance-like rhythms and tightened the emotional screws tighter until the very end. A true ‘claptrap,’ in the original and best sense, if ever there was one.

No surprises perhaps that Philip Sheppard named Anna Cashell as the Royal College of Music String Player of the Year 2006. For the sheer musicality of her interpretations I would single out Minat Lyons – a fine young cellist with an exceptionally rich and nuanced tone at her disposal. It was indeed a close run thing, with all players notable in one respect or another and every one a credit to the quality of string teaching at the Royal College of Music.

Evan Dickerson


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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)