York Early Music International Young Artists Competition 2019

York Early Music International Young Artists Competition 2019
National Centre for Early Music
York, 11-13 July 2019

Founded in 1985, the York Early Music International Young Artists Competition (until 2009 under the auspices of the Early Music Network) is firmly ensconced in the National Centre for Early Music in the splendidly restored former medieval church of St Margaret’s Church, Walmgate, York. This year was the 18th incarnation of the biennial event, which for some years has formed part of the annual York Early Music Festival and is supported by the National Centre for Early Music, BBC Radio 3, Arts Council England and Linn Records. The full list of competition rules can be seen here but, briefly, there must be a minimum of two members aged 36 years or under with an average age of 32 or under. The repertory must be from the middle ages to the nineteenth century, using historically informed playing techniques, instruments and stylistic conventions. The ten finalists were chosen from 58 applications to provide a balance sequence of concerts in the final, covering the whole ‘early music’ period. The BBC Radio broadcast of selections of pieces from the final can be heard here.

One of the most interesting things about the York Competition, for performers and listeners alike, is that for the two days before the final, the groups give informal recitals of different programmes to their competition final pieces. Jury members are not present, and it is not part of the competition itself. As well as giving them a chance to get used to the performing space, it allows the influential Friends of York Early Music Festival to gain a wider perspective on the groups performing capability and repertoire. The Friends award their own prize which, in some past years, has proved to be rather more perceptive than the choice of the competition jury – indeed, on one memorable occasion, the winner of the Friends prize, but not the competition prize, was instantly signed up to a major recording deal and now have at least 14 CDs to their name. These informal recitals were introduced by performer and musicologist John Bryan, who invited them to say more about their group and the music they were performing. I heard both these preliminary performances as well as the competition final but base my reviews principally on their performance during the final. 

The competition final was recorded for broadcast by BBC Radio 3’s Early Music Show on Sunday 28 July at 2pm and afterwards on iPlayer. It was also live-streamed, in four sections related to breaks in the day, and can be viewed here. You will need to scroll through to the start of the actual performances. There is also link to the programme for the day on the same webpage. My reviews below follow the order that the finalists appeared so, rather unnervingly for me, you can follow the group’s performance while reading my review to check if I am writing nonsense. Photos and details of the finalists can be seen here. Photos on this page are of the NCEM’s St Margeret’s Walmgate and its 12th-century doorway.

The duo El Parnasillo are Marta Ramírez, violin, and Eloy Orzaiz, harpsichord & fortepiano, using two violins and bows, two keyboard instruments, and two different pitches. They are both from Pamplona in Spain, and met at the Schola Cantorum Basilensis in Basel, Switzerland. Their programme, Obbligato, included extracts from Sonatas by JS Bach, de Mondonville and Mozart, the Bach and Mozart movements completing pieces that they had started in their preliminary concert. What was particularly impressive was that this programme reflected an equal partnership of performers, not a soloist and accompaniest. Indeed, two of the pieces listed the keyboard as the principal instrument, rather than the violin.

The Allegro from Bach’s opening Sonata in G (BWV 1019) is a true Trio sonata with the obligato harpsichord providing two of the three lines of music. Marta Ramírez and Eloy Orzaiz demonstrated just how to articulate a Baroque musical line, with their recognition of the little motifs that make up what might otherwise seem to be a continuous run of semiquavers.

In the Allegro from Jean-John de Mondonville’s Sonata for harpsichord and obligato violin (Op3/4), Marta Ramírez moved from a position in front of the harpsichord to behind it, to reflect the changed status of the violin. The audience seating arrangement is tricky for performers in that it spans nearly 180 degrees around the stage and, unfortunately, this meant that for some in the audience she was hidden from view behind the harpsichord lid. A similar positional issue occurred during the Bach, when she stood alongside the harpsichord player, with her back to many of the audience.

Their performances were excellent in all three pieces. In their two movements from Mozart’s Sonata in D (K306) they explored the alternating drama and humour in the music, making very good use of rhetoric and silence. Marta Ramírez demonstrated outstanding control of violin tone colour through her control of the bow to shade and shape the musical line. She also gave a lovely demonstration of the different styles of playing with Baroque and Classical bows. Eloy Orzaiz impressed on both harpsichord and fortepiano, making appropriate use of the sustain and una corda pedals on the latter. He was also one of the few keyboard players who gave sensible tuning notes for their partner, without adding extraneous notes or distracting harmonies. I also liked the evident rapport between them – it is something that audiences notice, in its presence and absence.

The two UK-based members Duellists are Tabea Debus, recorder, and Alex McCartney playing lute, theorbo and guitar. Their programme title of Arias Unvoiced gave a clue as to the link between vocal and instrumental performance, noting in their programme Ganassi’s comment that instrumentalists should learn from the voice and imitate it. In their earlier programme, they played Telemann, Blavet, Handel and Bach, but moved to an earlier repertoire for the final, with music by Dowland, Caccini, Monteverdi and others. They started with a nicely-segued group of English pieces, including Dowland’s Earl of Essex Galliard and John Johnson’s take on Greensleeves, all accompanied by the mellow tone of a lute.

The rest of the programme came from Italy, starting with diminutions by Bassario and Rognini on Cipriano de Rore’s Ancor che col partire, and a pair of Arias on the Romanesca by Giului and Francesca Caccini. They finished with a sequence of Ciaconas by Bertali, Monteverdi and Piccinini. Like El Parnasillo before them, there was a wonderful sense of musical and personal rapport between the two musicians, each clearly enjoying what the other was doing. Tabea Debus plays with a wonderfully subtle inflexion of tone and texture, integrating ornaments and flourishes into the flow of the musical line rather than isolating them as add-ons. Her use of articulation, both in terms of the tonguing of individual notes and of grouping notes together, is impeccable.

Alex McCartney’s use of three different accompanying instruments was very effective, from the gentle tone of the lute (and a lovely silvery tinkle at the end of the opening sequence), through the rich timbre of the theorbo and the rhythmic bounce of a Baroque guitar. During the final sequence, he also added a wandering minstrel element to the occasion by walking off stage to sit with the audience while continuing to play the guitar. Judging by his entertaining chat during the preliminary and final concerts, he would do well at stand-up comedy, even if he runs the risk of making his partner corpse.

They were followed by Duo Arnal-d’Anfray from France, consisting of Lucie Arnal, cello, and Benjamin d’Anfray, fortepiano. They met while students at the Lyon Conservatoire. Their programme, Singing and Virtuosity, included pieces by Beethoven, Schubert and Lachner, to reflect the mixed-genre nature of chamber concerts in the German-speaking world around 1820. It followed their earlier concert of pieces by Hummel and Beethoven. They started with the opening Allegro con brio of Beethoven’s Op 102/2 Sonata in D, contrasting with their earlier performance of the complete Op 102/1 Sonata, in C, both Sonatas composed in 1815.  In both performances, the elegiac, almost anarchic fantasy structure of the music demanded, and got, a good sense of pacing and control.

They followed this with an arrangement by Leopold Jansa of Schubert’s Die Taubenpost (Pigeon post) the final piece in the Schwanengesang, taking the form of a song without words, as hinted by the title of their programme. Duo Arnal-d’Anfray were one of the ensembles that introduced little-known composers to the audience, on this occasion with Franz Paul Lachner. His Introduction et Variations sur un thême Suisse pour Piano et Cor ou Violoncelle (Op.12) was written for one of Vienna’s finest horn players, although he made it also playable on cello. Lachner’s compositions were influenced by both Beethoven and Schubert, and those links showed in this piece.

Although both players impressed on their individual instruments, there didn’t seem to be the degree of collaboration and partnership demonstrated by some of their fellow competitors. They seemed rather different in character and performing style, and it was noticeable that the pianist very rarely looked at the cellist. That said, their coordination seemed fine, and listening blind might have resulted in a different opinion. The cello playing included some moments of slightly wayward intonation and a degree of portamento that seemed a little excessive to me, even considering the dates of the music, which was rather late for the usual ‘early music’ heard in these competitions. This was also an example where excessive figuration was given when giving tuning notes. However, it was a fine example of the importance of using a fortepiano for music of this period – a modern piano would have produced a totally different sound and balance with the cello.

Consort laurentien are from Canada, taking their name from Quebec’s Saint Lawrence River. They are Julie Rivest violin, Étienne Asselin cornetto, Maximilien Brisson trombone, and Christophe Gauthier harpsichord. Their programme compared music from early 17th-century Venice by Castello, Dalla Casa and Picchi under the title Virtuosos of St Mark’s. Their nicely segued sequence of pieces was linked by harpsichord intonazione by Andrea & Giovanni Gabrieli. The contrast between their interesting combination of instruments was immediately apparent in their opening piece, Castello’s 1629 Sonata duodecima a tre, the rapid switches between virtuoso passages and gentler moments being typical of the Stylus Phantasticus. They clearly relished one of Castello wonderfully anarchic cadential flourishes. It was particularly good to hear the contrast between the violin and the cornetto. At the period in question, the cornetto was in the process of being displaced as the principal solo instrument by the violin, hitherto seen as something of a folk instrument.

Dalla Casa’s, Ben qui si mostra’l ciel, was based on an earlier piece by Cipriano de Rore, as had one of the pieces in their earlier programme. Here the diminutions were played on the trombone, demonstrating both its flexibility as well as the difficulty of playing such fast passages with perfect intonation. They all combined again for the Canzon La Rubins a tre by Giovanni Battista Riccio and Picchi’s Canzona ottava a tre (1620 &1625), the latter with some attractive echo passages. Their well-written programme notes noted the arrival in 1568 of three Dalla Casa brothers, who formed the first permanent instrumental ensemble in St Mark’s heralding the start of an extraordinary musical institution.

Their earlier performance, Madrigali Passeggiati. used an organ rather than harpsichord and explored the art of diminution with pieces published between 1591 and 1594. The combination of violin and organ was particularly attractive in Rognini’s diminutions on Ancor che col partire.

The German ensemble feuervogel are the four recorder players Asako Ito, Kathrin
Schubert, Tabea Popien, and Felix Schlenker with Min-Tzu Lee playing frame drum. They opened their programme of Dance Fantasias by processing into the hall and standing in front of the stage – a nice touch. They started with a sequence of contrasting pieces by Schultz, Engelmann and Johnson (his Satyrs Dance, from the 1611 masque Oberon). This was a very effective way of starting their concert, and led to an encouraging round of applause before the recorder players moved onto the stage for Issac’s La mi la sol (O praceclara), the cantus being held by one of the recorders. Incidentally, if you are watching the live stream, the imposed title of the pieces are not in the correct order. The piece they play on going onto the stage is La mi a sol, not Courant, which was one of the three previous pieces earlier performed below the stage.

I was particularly impressed by their performance of Fantasias by John Jenkins and Purcell on the lower members of the recorder family. The intonation of the four recorders and their overall consort sound was spot on. With an attractive link from the frame drum, they returned to the floor below the shallow stage for their partly improvised arrangement of Istampitta: Tre fontane, their lively and imaginative playing, and the use of the frame drum, making a fitting ending

They coped well with logistics the many different recorders to be shared out between them and, on one occasion, a complicated bit of music-score manipulation. The combination of percussion with a recorder consort is potentially tricky, but the sensitive and simple use of the frame drum was an attractive addition at the start and conclusion of the concert.

El Gran Teatro del Mundo are based in Basel, Switzerland, but clearly have Spanish roots, not least in the name of the ensemble, which comes from a 1655 Spanish mystery play. They specialise in arranging large-scale pieces for their smaller consort of instruments. The six members of the group are Lukas Hamberger violin, Miriam Jorde Hompanera oboe, Johanna Bartz flute, Bruno Hurtado Gosalvez bass violin, Jadran Duncumb theorbo, and Julio Caballero Pérez harpsichord. Their programme, Opera comes to the Salon, was of music from the Court of Louis XIV in Versailles and included extracts from operas by Lully, Marais, and Charpentier. It was a nice contrast with their earlier programme of music by Muffat and Kusser influenced by the French composer Lully.

They formed a tight-knit group on stage, gathering around the harpsichord, with the three solo instruments standing behind. They opened with Lully, and his Ouverture from Phaëton followed by the dramatic Air Ah! Tu me trahis, malheureuse from Act III of Amadis with its darkly punchy bass and distinctive oboe and flute solos. A neat harpsichord link led to the gentle recitative Le plus juste parti from Atys (with Johanna Bartz’s flute taking the role of the singer) followed by a distinctive Lully Passacaille, this one from Armide. 

Marais’ dramatic Tremblement de terre and Tempete (from Semele and Alcyone) revealed some virtuosic playing from all of the group. This was one occasion when the percussive mechanical noise and sheer volume from the cello was perhaps appropriate, although I felt it was excessive and distractive in several of the other pieces. After the drama of Marais, they finished with Charpentier’s more mellow Symphonie et récit pour le violin d’Orphée, ending in a refreshingly restrained manner. One aspect of performance which this group, amongst some others, demonstrated was controlling the audience in letting them know when to, and when not to applaud.

The only group in the finals to perform medieval music and the only one to include singers was the imaginatively named ensemble .q.p.i.t.. They are based at the famed Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, and take their name (pronounced ‘cupit’) from the symbols of the measures of the notation system in Marchetto da Padova’s 1318 Pomerium in arte musice mensurate. The members of the group are Miriam Trevisan, Tessa Roos, and Amy Farnell voices, Fiona Kizzie Lee recorder & organetto, Vera Schnider harp, and Tabea Schwartz recorder & fiddle. It was lovely to hear (and see) an organetto/portative organ using in a medieval consort – a rare sight in the UK. Their programme was Love, life and death in 14th-century Italy reflecting their focus on the music of Italian Ars Nova. Their programme note promised unrequited pursuits, leading to pain, sorrow and death, while a well-prepared and well-spoken introduction from Tabea Schwartz promised a “deadly end”. 

They moved through the various aspects of romantic pursuits. The pain of love of the anonymous Che pena è questa followed Landini’s instrumental Che pena è questa al cor (which, curiously, given Landini’s fame as an organetto player, didn’t include the organetto). It was followed by a delightfully performed Per tropo fede, a tale of the bitter poison and burning torment of Love, sung with a magnificent sense of determination and strength by the three unison female voices, standing front stage as if challenging anybody who might betray their trust. A lovely moment! After an instrumental Istampita ‘La Caccia’ played on two tabors, drum and medieval castanets, they finished with a comparison of the romantic chase with animal hunts in Gherardello da Firenze’s Cacciand’ un giorno alla vaga foresta and the concluding Seghugi a corta e can per la foresta. The latter dramatically depicted the clamour of an animal hunt, complete with shouts of bauf, babauf and Olla, olla, olla, albeit with obvious undertones of the chase of human romance. It ended reflectively as an ‘old fox’ carried a beautiful young girl into the woods with the promise of “I don’t just want to embrace you”.

The members of ensemble .q.p.i.t. made excellent contact with the audience, drawing us into their musical world. It was also a delight to hear three such pure, unaffected and perfectly tuned voices, essential for the performance of music of this period and, I suggest, a considerable asset in later ‘early music’ singing.

The two members of Due Oratori are originally from Germany and the Czech Republic but are now based in the Netherlands. They are Antje Becker flute, and Ondřej Bernovský harpsichord, and concentrate on the obligato keyboard repertoire, often of little-known composers. Their programme was called Three in Two, reflecting the change in the role of the harpsichord from an accompanying continuo instrument to an equal obligato partner with solo instruments, for example in playing two of the three parts of a Trio Sonata. In their first programme, they introduced us to three little-known composers, Anton Filtz, Václav Vodicka and Ludwig Albert Friedrich Baptiste. For this concert, they played Telemann, and movements from a Trio Sonata by CPE Bach and the Concerto in D by another little-known composer, Johann Matthias Leffloth.

In 1734, Telemann published a set of six Suites and Concertos for flute and harpsichord (TWV 42:h). The four-movement B minor concerto demonstrates Telemann’s approachable Galant style of composition. A lovely opening Adagio with distinctive Lombardic rhythms leads to a Vivace with lots of repeated notes on the harpsichord, a third movement Gratioso, and a concluding nod to the Baroque tradition with a fugal Presto. CPE Bach was represented by the Adagio from his G major Trio Sonata (Wq150, H574), with its elegiacally lyrical melody. They finished with Johann Matthias Leffloth, an organist from Nuremburg, whose early death prevented him becoming music director in Russia. The second of the two movements played included an extended harpsichord solo.

What particularly impressed me with Due Oratori was the fine sense of cooperation and coordination between the two players, both absolutely attuned to what the other was doing. Antje Becker flute playing was beautifully sensitive, notably in the slower movements. Ondřej Bernovský’s harpsichord playing supported the flute well, providing little musical counter-arguments and mirroring figures. They have an attractive sense of rhetoric in their musical lines. I was also impressed with the way they waited for complete silence from the audience before they started. If you are starting quietly, that wait is always worthwhile.

The Butter Quartet met during their studies at the Koninklijk Conservatorium Den Haag. They are Anna Jane Lester & Chloe Prendergast violins, Isabel Franenberg viola, and Evan Buttar cello and they focus on the historical performance practice of string quartet music from the early Classical to the early Romantic eras. They performed the complete String Quartet in C major, by Haydn, from the Opus 20 collection that gave their programme its title, The Sun. The name of ‘Sun Quartets’ came from the rising sun motif on the 1779 Hummel edition, and they used that edition for this performance.

Haydn makes pointed references to the changing nature of string quartets in the opening Moderato. The new role of the cello was apparent from the start, with its solo start, and the more cooperative nature of string quartets was evidenced by the first violin being the third instrument to join in, rather than dominating the texture, as in earlier quartets. The opening Capriccio: Adagio has a dark edge to it, with its ominous unison opening leading to a mellow cello solo. In their programme note, they mention that Haydn and the Eszterházy court musicians were having a difficult time, and suggest that the mood of the Quartet reflects that. The Menuetto & Trio: Allegretto and concluding Fuga a 4 soggetti: Allegro continued the rather reflective mood, until a sudden shift into a dramatic conclusion.

They gave a very professional and polished performance, and are clearly very used to working with each other. The shifting moods and textures of the pieces are not easy to negotiate, but they coped well with the musical demands.

The Spanish group L’Apothéose are Laura Quesada flute, Víctor Martínez violin, Carla Sanfélix cello, and Asís Márquez harpsichord. They were the first to appear in the preliminary concerts and the last in the competition final. In their first concert, La Dolcezza, the music was based on tenderness and sensitivity in pieces by Clérambault and Handel. For their final programme, Il Furore, they switch moods and concentrated on “furore, ardour, anger, grandeur and tempestuousness”.  They opened with the Trio Sonata in G minor, (Op14/4) by Carl Philipp Stamitz. a recent discovery found in the Biblioteca Nacional de España. The opening Allegro opens energetically before more lyrical, if rather dark moments arrive, using all the instruments in solo as well as accompanimental roles. The Rondo. Allegretto is lighter in mood, allowing the instruments to skip along in dance-like form. The delicate articulation of the instruments was a feature of this movement.

The other pieces were the last two movements from Telemann’s Quatuor no. 6 in E minor (TWV 43:e4) from his 1738 Nouveaux quatuors. The distinctive cross-rhythms and scurrying flurry of notes of the brisk Distrait were delivered to perfection by the four players. The concluding Modéré was more relaxed and lyrical and their well-paced final cadence made a very attractive ending to three days of intense music-making.

After their appearance at the start of the preliminary concerts, my thoughts were “follow that”, such was the professionalism and musicality of their performance. They matched that standard in the final concert of the day, demonstrating the experience they have already gained from prize-winning appearances in several other competitions, and in their involvement with the current EEEmerging (Emerging European Ensembles) project. Their playing was crisp and clear and well-coordinated, helped by playing from memory.

The last of these competitions that I was able to review was in 2009. In the ten years since then, there have been four biennial competitions. In my reviews of the six competitions up to that date, there were several general comments that applied to most of the groups, who were generally younger and less experienced than those in the current competition. Most of those comments applied to the general issue of ‘stagecraft’ – the often technical, rather than musical, aspects of performance that were then rarely taught in conservatories and are only gained by experience. It is a sign of the increased professional experience of this year’s finalists that no such comments are needed. Although each ensemble, and each individual within each group, had their own style on stage, they were all thoroughly professional in the way that they presented their programmes. Some focussed entirely on letting their music speak for itself, with little or no engagement with the audience, while others built an instant rapport with the audience by spoken introductions or the simple expedient of just smiling at us. Both are appropriate approaches to performance. The management of the concerts is also far more professional, not least in the BBC’s generally more sensible arrangements of their many microphones and cables.

The five members of the jury used the following criteria in their decision:

choice of repertory – and a sustainable interesting repertory for future performances
application of historical style of performance
creativity of programme planning
technical ability
presentation – stage presence, rapport with audience, professionalism
quality of programme notes
overall contribution to the early music scene
eventual professional viability
professionalism of dealings with the Festival office

There were a variety of prizes on offer headed by the first prize of £1000, a CD recording with Linn Records, and a paid concert during the 2020 York Early Music Festival. This was won by L’Apothéose. The Friends of the York Early Music Festival also award a prize which up until a few hours before the announcement was £500, but was doubled during the day by a donation, making it equal to the first prize of £1000. They also awarded their prize to L’Apothéose, an interesting and unusual moment of agreement with the jury. L’Apothéose also won the EUBO (European Union Baroque Orchestra) Development Trust Prize of £1000. A further prize offered was inclusion in the EEEMERGING+ project – the new incarnation of Emerging European Ensembles scheme. It was awarded to The Butter Quartet. An additional award of a paid concert in Cambridge was made to El Gran Teatro del Mundo.

With several organisations awarding prizes, only one of which chosen by the jury, I suppose it is inevitable that one group might pick up several prizes, as happened here. While congratulations are obviously due to L’Apothéose for picking up all three of the financial awards, I thought it was a shame that, with five prizes available for ten groups, the awards weren’t spread a little wider amongst the talented young musicians. They all performed to a very high standard and have promising careers in front of them. They will have gained considerably from the experience of performing during the competition.

The next York Early Music International Young Artists Competition will be from 14–17 July 2021, as part of the York Early Music Festival. More details will be available at yorkcomp.ncem.co.uk.