Royal College of Music String
Player of the Year 2006. Wigmore Hall, London.
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
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.