Battle of repertoire

19th May 2014 | Concerts, Inspirations, Musings | 5 comments

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.


  1. Mary

    Thank you for putting this so eloquently. From the earlier stages, I too had picked out Sophie Westbrooke as an outstanding musician who deserves to have a great professional future, but it was equally obvious that in a concerto context any pianist would have the edge because of repertoire. Martin James Bartlett was a worthy winner, but Rachmaninov has a habit of ‘coming up trumps’ for contestants…

    Your idea about changing the format at the Finals stage is interesting – but BBCYM 14 has just brought the competition back from the brink – hard to get it to make yet another brave step at this stage.

  2. James B

    I for one am not inspired by percussionist finalists. As a pianist I am aware that our repertoire is just so much more challenging. It takes harder work, it’s subtleties are more… subtle. I’m pleased that Martin James Bartlett was the winner, and I do hope that he’ll continue on to a great career, hopefully not just sticking to the impressive ‘warhorses’!

  3. Betty

    I agree with what you are saying. It must be difficult for the judges to separate repertoire from performance.
    I was lucky enough to be there on Sunday, and WOW they were all brilliant.
    My favourite on the day was Elliott, he had the audience transfixed. His energy was infectious and you just totally forgot he was only 15.
    Sophie’s piece was lovely, but the hall was a little too big for her instrument to have maximum impact (and a tough job to follow the percussion!)
    That said Martin gave an excellent performance.
    I’m just glad I didn’t have to choose!
    BTW I don’t think Elliott and Sophie are allowed to enter again as the won their category final. (Martin didn’t first time round at 15, which is why he could re-enter at 17)

  4. Jeremy H.

    The final came across in a somewhat distorted fashion on television, with the differences in sound scale that you refer to in the hall ironed out for presentation, but the filming also exaggarating Martin’s physical and facial movement to an almost distracting level. In the end he did tell a stronger musical story, and was a deserved winner, without that needing to put down the other finalists. You mention that Ellioott and Sophie could hardly have played better, but might consider entering again. I wonder what further value they would derive from that. Alison Balsom has done fine without coming out on top in the final. If I were an imaginative concert organiser, with a suitable venue, I would already be booking Sophie – her woodwind final performance really drew in the listener.

    • Susan Tomes

      Well, you’re quite right – perhaps the two other finalists would do better to move onwards to new projects. I think when I suggested they might enter the competition again, I was just feeling sorry for them, having come so close to winning. But, as you say, they are well able to win fans of their own without putting themselves through the competition mill again.


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