Throughout the preliminary rounds of BBC Young Musician 2012, the judges have stressed that the emphasis is on musicianship, on looking for that extra spark that makes every performance really special, but also on the importance of enjoying music. This was the one thing that really stood out at tonight’s final, as all three soloists really communicated their love of what they do to everyone in the hall.
They also treated us to a fascinating programme that balanced the unknown and the familiar, beginning with that much maligned and neglected instrument, the recorder. Charlotte Barbour-Condini, celebrating her 16th birthday, made a huge opening statement by playing an extended improvised introduction to Vivaldi’s Recorder Concerto in C minor. At this point, I have to declare an interest, being a recorder player myself, and hearing the magical sound of a solo recorder filling Hall One of the Sage is one I won’t forget, although in style her improvisation didn’t entirely fit with the Vivaldi that followed. Accompanied by a much reduced orchestra of just 3 violins, bassoon, double bass, cello and harpsichord, Charlotte managed the tricky job of achieving a good balance with the other instruments and gave a wonderfully vibrant performance. There were some nice changes of tempo in the first movement, the Largo was poised and elegant, and and the Finale’s fiendish fast passages – full of big leaps, where the recorder mimics the sound of a double-stopping violin – sparkled with excitement.
We were then taken back into the realm of the familiar by pianist Yuanfan Yang who played Grieg’s ever-popular Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16. This was an excellent choice for showcasing his range of dynamics and colour, and the audience loved it. From the dramatic crash of the opening chords, much of the piece was played with the youthful bravado that it deserves. Northern Sinfonia, under the direction of guest conductor Kirill Karabits, matched Yuanfan’s energy, and the last movement was particularly exciting, right from its clipped and rhythmic opening. As a whole, though, this movement could have improved if Yuanfan had just allowed it to cool off a little, to let in a touch more contrast. He did this beautifully in the slow movement, where the quiet passages were wistful and tender, before the passion built up again. Yuanfan looked and sounded particularly assured, as if he’d been playing major piano concerti in front of packed houses for years, and I’m sure we will see great things from him.
The overall winner of the competition, Laura van der Heijden, exhibited incredible musicianship and maturity from the moment of her first appearance in the category finals, and her thoughtful approach showed through even in her choice of concerto. Instead of playing one of the “big” famous cello pieces such as the Elgar or the Dvořák, she opted for William Walton’s relatively unknown concerto, and made it her own. Walton’s concerto reverses the expected form, consisting of two slower outer movements, and a virtuosic second movement. This fast movement glittered with colour from the woodwind, matched beautifully by the cello solo passages. The concerto opens with a gently swinging, seductive theme, and the lyrical passages sang out beautifully. The final movement (Lento – Tema ed improvvisazioni) contrasted poised beauty with an exciting cadenza, followed by bold orchestral flourishes, before dying away to almost nothing. The beauty of Laura van der Heijden’s playing lies in the fact that she has a wonderful expressivity, but never, ever overdoes it, and the pianissimo ending of the concerto was enchanting, ending with just the solo cello, captivating the audience, just as the solo recorder had done at the beginning of the concert.
While the judges made their decision, we were entertained with a very relaxed performance of the second movement of Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto by last year’s winner Lara Melda. All three finalists are to be congratulated for their wonderful performances: in a weekend where a dog won a national talent competition, these three, and all the other category finalists, showed that Britain really has got plenty of talent. I have no doubt that they will all go on to have very exciting careers, and Charlotte Barbour-Condini will be a marvellous ambassador for the recorder – but in my mind there is no doubt that Laura van der Heijden is something quite special, and her title of BBC Young Musician 2012 is well deserved. Look out for her: she’s going to be a star.