The annual BBC Young Musicians contest highlights, even in its preliminary rounds, a standard of performance among the young that is quite astonishing, and shows no sign of abating. The debate as to whether a 14-year old soloist can understand the musical and spiritual content of Beethoven's Emperor Concerto or Brahms' Violin Concerto seems no longer to be valid, for our ears are telling us that what we are hearing is very little different from that presented to us by many of the instrumental giants of our times, Brendel or Barenboim, Perlman or Mutter, or a formidable host of other names listed by yearbooks or the shop windows of concert agents.
What we and recording companies and orchestral managements are paying for is no doubt charisma, celebrity, fame -- qualities not yet attained by those teenagers. But surely, when technical brilliance and assurance can be demonstrated by the young in so many international competitive games, what added value is worth the fee if the music itself is, as it should be, the prime component?
If the listener is not made aware of the performer, as was the case once with composers in a fine series of BBC radio programmes years ago called The Innocent Ear, it is unlikely that more than about 2% of us could identify the soloist in any given recording. Only audible signs of age in the sound quality might be used to narrow down the field, but without that the difference between a Menuhin performance and that of a 6th year student at the Menuhin School would, with today's talent, be difficult to guess with certainty.
It is perhaps always the charismatic presence of the celebrated -- and often veteran -- performer that will add some kind of abstract indefinable bias to our assessment of a performance that has, in real terms, little more to offer than the young scholar. Yet once the player is known to be a child, it becomes quite easy to use such judgemental comments as 'lacks that real interpretive maturity' or 'still to acquire the authority that comes with experience', comments usually offered by 'mature' and 'experienced' artists who, rather than seeing their positions too severely challenged by children, must provide a plausible basis upon which to persuade us that we should still pay the price of 'the great artist' -- even if thereby forfeiting youthful spontaneity!
As the flood-gates now seem to be far more widely open to brilliant young talent, one cannot help wondering whether the era of the great elderly celebrity is finally waning.
Copyright © 30 May 2006 Patric Standford,
West Yorkshire, UK