I was fortunate to be in the audience at the Finals of BBC Young Musician in the Usher Hall yesterday. What a treat! All three finalists showed a remarkable degree of poise, as well as a superb level of musicianship and skill. I was amazed by their calmness on the platform and their composure in the presence of TV cameras. How do these teenagers do it? They seem to feel so comfortable with microphones, cameras and interviews.
The pianist Martin James Bartlett – charmingly dressed in ‘tails’ – was a deserving winner of the trophy with his beautifully nuanced and precise performance of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. He played with intelligence, aplomb and impressive maturity – I had to pinch myself to remember that he is still only 17. Before he played, we saw a video interview in which he made the delightful comment that he often ‘prefers playing concertos and chamber music to playing solo pieces’, a remark I shall treasure.
At these occasions, however, I often have the uncomfortable feeling that we are not comparing like with like. How on earth can one compare a delicate, pastel recorder concerto by Gordon Jacobs with the thundering power of Rachmaninov? How can one set a soulful Romantic piano concerto against the rock-style drumming of a brilliant fifteen-year-old with a metal wheelbarrow in his arsenal of instruments? I loved the playing of Elliott Gaston-Ross (percussion) and Sophie Westbrooke (recorder) all through the rounds of the competition. In fact, in my house we’d identified each of them as a potential winner of the whole thing. I started the Final with the feeling that any of the three finalists was worthy of being Young Musician of the Year. I was glad I didn’t have to choose between them.
I’ve already said that the pianist was brilliant, but the recorder player and the percussionist could hardly have played better. Yet their repertoire seemed, perhaps invevitably, limited or one-sided next to the gorgeous lyrical sweep of Rachmaninov in full voice. I sometimes think that the audience confuses the merits of the piece with the merits of the performer, thinking that whoever played the best piece must be the best player, and conversely that whoever played a slight and gentle piece was capable of less. But limitations in the piece are not the fault of the player. And how could a recorder ever conquer the symphony hall acoustics to the same extent that a brand new concert grand piano can?
I don’t know what the answer is, except to stop making further judgements when we get to this level, and just offer all the finalists a lot of concert opportunities, so that we can hear them in their own choice of repertoire and in venues suited to their instruments. It’s not showbiz, but it might be fairer. In the meantime I hope that Elliott Gaston-Ross and Sophie Westbrooke may take a leaf out of Martin James Bartlett’s book and consider going in for the competition again when they are two years older and that much more experienced.