Queen Elisabeth Finals - judging the final judgment

May 29, 2012, 5:56 PM · Let me start by saying that I find the jury's selection of the six prizewinners absolutely spot on. I think these six have some very special qualities, and I wish all of them all the best on their thorny musical path ahead but, now, let's turn to business.
Having to rank such wonderful players is no easy task. I ordered the CD set of the competition a a week or so ago and so, being quite unhappy with the final results, I began by thinking what I would like to have on those CD's.
Starting with the finals, I would be sad if, first and foremost, Tatsuki Narita's Paganini would not be there. I would also like to have and be use for my future university students Yu-Chien's Brahms' concerto as well as Hyun Su Shin"s Brahms.
Baranov's Shostakovitch I would not want. While the first movement had some great moments, it also had out of tune notes which multiplied exponentially during the subsequent movements. His sound quality in the second and fourth movement was unacceptable, and his tempo choices not supported by a good enough command of the instrument's technique. There were moments when the music was quite unintelligible. The other concertos all were struggles of over-tired players.
For the sonatas, I liked very much Esther Yoo's choice of Mendelssohn, and the youthful way she delivered it. Again, Baranov's Prokofiev was great, except the second movement where he once again proved he cannot play off string music with good quality sound.Shishkov's Brahms had some amazing moments like the beginning of the third movement, but sometimes he seemed to not penetrate the music beyond slavish adherence to the score. Some choices of keeping the tempo steady in the second movement where rubato would have been appropriate and quite accurate stylistically (whether we think of either today's performance practices of nineteenth century performance practices) managed to effectively kill the mood. The same, in my opinion, was the result of his choice to use the mute for the second movement of the Tchaikovsky concerto. It is in the score, but it did not work for him, and he could have done much better without feeling he has to struggle for a big sound to surface above the orchestra.
For the compulsory pieces, Yu-Chien Tseng was by far the best in Kissine (oh, I hope it is going to be on the CD!) and he, together with Tatsuki Narita and Hyun Su Shin, delivered maybe the only good versions of the Kenji concerto.
As for the semi finals: I would love to have Artiom Shishkov and Yu-Chien's Mozart concertos, Tatsuki Narita's whole recital and Hyun Su Shin's Chausson. I would also love to have Kristi Gjezi. whole recital.
I would spend money to either buy the CDs or go to listen live to Tatsuki Narita who was a real revelation and showed to be an outstanding musician, to Yu-Chien who delivered a most wonderful Brahms concerto and a semi finals round to be remembered, to Artiom Shishkov who is such a wonderful musician, so versatile, so sensitive: a real artist and, maybe, to Hyun Su Shin if she learns to control and diversify her monotonous and overpowering vibrato. I would never pay to listen to Baranov who didn't think it important enough to perfect his intonation and sound for such a competition and relied only on his talent, experience and politics to send him to the top. I saw in Baranov's playing neither the serious, respectful and insightful focus I saw in Yu-Chien Tseng's playing, nor the happyness of making beautiful, solar and meaningful music and sharing it with the audience, as it was the case with Tatsuki Narita (did you see his smile as he was playing?).
My ranking would be:
1) Tatsuki Narita for his joy of making music, for his oustanding performance, for his very special sound and all the colors he could produce, for not getting tired at the end of the concerto,
2) Yu-Chien Tseng for his amazing semi final round as well as for his wonderful Brahms concerto
3) Hyun Su Shin for her Chasson and Sibelius, but less for trying to make music with un undifferentiated vibrato instead of using her bow to create more shades.
4) Andrey Baranov because he is, after all, an accomplished musician, but less for a one color Russian program in both the semifinals and the finals, for a bad Mozart, messy Ysaye sonata, bad taste in Kissine, bad second movement in Prokofiev's sonata and sub par second and fourth movements in the concerto.
5) Artiom Shishkov for and outstanding semi final including one of the best Mozart concertos, for a great Brahms sonata, but less for being a victim of fatigue in the finals
6) Esther Yoo for her Mendelssohn sonata, for being a very accomplished musician at such an early age, but less for a bad choice of playing Beethoven's concerto in the finals. Suyoen Kim, the one who was bumped down to the fourth place in 2009 and whom, in my opinion, should have won the competition, played a Beethoven concerto many classes higher than Yoo's, and she was still bumped down to fourth place due to an unfortunate mistake.
Having Baranov as the winner quite depresses me. Even beyond the intonation mistakes, it was his choice of tempi in the fast movements of the concerto, his bad sound quality in these movements as well as in the second movement of the Prokofiev sonata, his old fashioned Mozart, his only-Russian program, which should not have led him to be the winner over much more interesting, more cultivated, more musically and technically accomplished candidates.

Replies

May 31, 2012 at 10:38 PM · Adrian,

Thank you for another helpful blog on this subject! I have been following your blogs with great interests. I’m learning a lot and I felt quite assuring each time I saw my observation coincided with yours (such as Shin’s vibrato and Baranov's sound, etc, and I will definitely pay to listen to Narita and Shishkov). By the way, here is the contents of the CD set:

http://www.cd-elisabeth.be/pdf/Violin%202012%20EN.pdf

One thing I’m curious about is the politics that you briefly referred to regarding Baranov’s winning. I have no reason questioning the comment, only that, like most people watching the competition from afar, I have completely no access to any information regarding this sort of thing and would be grateful to hear a bit more about it, if you feel comfortable to share this with your readers here.

Again, thank you for posting these honest and detailed blogs. They have been very helpful.

Cheers.

Yixi

June 1, 2012 at 01:35 AM · Hi Yixi,

Thank you so very much for your kind words as well as for the link to the content of the CDs. There is nothing I can loose, so why beat around the bush?! I am an accomplished musician who did not have the financial/political means to make it big and I am still working hard toward a career that would enable me to share all my accumulated experience with future generations.

I am still waiting for the site to open but now I know I will find out what is on the CDs before I actually receive them.

As for the politics: Baranov is the assistant of Pierre Amoyal. Not even his student (well, he is/was) but his assistant. Isn't this enough?

Since the competition site crashed right when they were starting the ceremony, I found a tv station (musiq3) which was broadcasting online. They had a short interview with Baranov and the reporter asked if, before the announcement, he was expecting to win. His reply was: "Yes, a little bit." I find this to be more than lack of manners, more than arrogance, but reliance on the power of Amoyal to bring him the first prize and the stupidity (or, again, astonishing arrogance) to let this slip out in the answer. He also went on to say that he would have to change his plans, that it would be difficult but "this" is more important. There was no smile, no genuine happiness, only the arrogance of one who really believes he is better than anybody else and that this competition was a big waste of time to just show to the whole world how amazing he is.

Performers need to learn how to understand/guess/feel what is going on in the minds of the composers in order to perform their music. As the years go by, they start understanding better how the human mind works. As a violinist, I myself learned over the years how to interpret the little that is said in such interviews. I believe his short interview is the proof that He was sure he would win and nobody can be sure unless there is more than tallent going on behind the scenes.

June 1, 2012 at 04:58 AM · Thanks for the explanation, Adrian! To say the least, I do think Baranov needs to work on his demeanor. It may be a cultural thing, but boy, the contrast in manner between his and that of others (such as Narita) is just too striking.

June 1, 2012 at 09:03 AM · Baranov won the Elisabeth competition, but I don't understand quite well why. I am afraid he won't be up to the high expectations the audience (and experts) have for nr. 1 of this high level competition. My personal favorite was and is Hyun Su Shin. She has about everything a top musician could want (musicality, splendid sonority, virtuosity, power, the daring of going ppp in sound level, ...), though she might be a bit "high voltage". A bit "high voltage" and uniform is also her vibrato, which could become annoying, but that I didn't find really disturbing. I listened yesterday to Sarah Chang playing the Sibelius concerto and I noticed she has a similar, perhaps slighty more discrete, vibrato. Perhaps Hyun Su Shin will find a way to make her vibrati less "high voltage", less uniform and musically more meaningful.

June 1, 2012 at 05:42 PM · What disappoints me about Hyun Su Shin's vibrato is that she seems only have one kind, but I'd be happy to be corrected if someone can show me otherwise.

June 3, 2012 at 10:44 PM · Oh, dear Frieda, that is a really hard question. How can one change things without harming the myriad of exquisite qualities already there in Hyn Su's playing?

It is interesting, she can play very beautifully without vibrato - as she showed in several spots in Sibelius. It is the stuff in between the non vibrato and her highly charged one that she is missing. My first impulse was to get her to play her most beautiful without any vibrato (and this would still work) but I think I would do it through repertoire. She should play chamber music, should play Mozart and Haydn quartets, Schubert sonatinas, maybe little Kreisler pieces for violin and piano where one cannot survive without a "living" vibrato.

I also think she might benefit from being able to use a hand vibrato, at least from time to time, instead of her arm vibrato, but, at her level, I don't believe it is so much a matter of exercises she should use but rather one of expanding her ideas about music making, exposing her to new repertoire and new possibilities for expression. All this, I believe, will also change her sound.

In the end, the sound is something very personal, like our voice. A teacher can bring the best in the student's sound, can bring out one or another of the facets of that sound, but in the end that is every violinist's voice.

June 4, 2012 at 10:41 AM · I am happy when I read the lines above.

For a start, this extremely easy way of judging Baranov's answers as stupidity or arrogance, combined with the complete lack of doubt in ones perception are , in my opinion, genuine trademarks of arrogance.

Yes, it is very hard to judge a final like that. Personally I believe that Narita could be very well 1st prize winner, aswell as after Baranov, Tseng or Shishkov. His Paganini was, simply, fantastic and impossible to compare with any other performance... execept other Paganini. Let's be honest : Narita's performance was very impressive, first of all in technical terms. Musically, fortunately, was very nice also and this is what makes it GREAT. But how do you compare this with the Brahms of Tseng? Tseng was unwilling to take any risk...some might say that is boring other might find in this the real virtuoso quality.

I will give you a different perspective and I do hope you can look deep down in yourself and find something that might resonate a bit.

Since you are willing to mention concepts as slavish approach: 2012 QE violin competition was ca place where honesty and pure human essence won. I see you got very busy to underline Baranov's mistakes and slided very fast over his qualities. I guess that is because a sort of frustrating feeling that results did not came out as you would expect...from the perspective of your personal experience. I dont blame that, most of people do that.

Your sentences are built arround ideeas of technique, sensations (personal) and politics ( Amoyal's power...come on, this is ofending the history of this competition).

Baranov played very human like. It really speaked to me and the energy he projected was the most convincing. I am very happy to notice that somebody simple, honest and with open spirit prevailed. The last movement of the concerto was really about feelings, energy and story telling. Not about ''the tone, the structure etc''. Todays music is suffering from beign less and less natural. Violinist either play according to they own impulse but being blind to composers intention, OR...the worst, completeliy intellectual (wich is cutting away the connection with authentic feeling). It is rare to see somebody who speaks out the music in it's natural way without sentimentalism or artificial view. Baranov just did that. Baranov just came with a bit of fresh air.

It is difficult not to get distracted from feelings...either because of technical aspects, or intellectual approach, or personal subjectivity.

Andrei Baranov is a great musician because of ability to project feelings in a natural, honest way. And this makes him unique. For me, him and Shishkov are the gifted artists. The rest was a lot of sport, brain, show...not much feeling.

Abeshy and Spacek are great in their way and not having any price should not represent anything for them.

In the end it is a matter of perspective. But as an advice: with your kind of thinking you can not afford to speak regarding the depth of an artist. No offence but you artical reflects a very superficial view. Start by trying to accept music in itself (for the sake of feelings) and give less credit to technical brilliance - discipline is useless without an authentic purpose and honeset expression.

June 4, 2012 at 11:34 AM · Oh, yes, almost forgot. You made me laugh a bit with your comments. ''Bad taste in Kissin''? - ok this I might undestand, that you are the new Kissin expert :) fine...but , bad Mozart??? Really??? It was the ultimate test where Baranov showed he is more concerned about the feeling than anything else...you know, Mozart should be beautiful too, btw. Not only stylistical corect. A big part of other competitors simply didn't know what to do.

June 4, 2012 at 12:45 PM · Dear Sebastian,

You accuse me of arrogance and then, right away, you go ahead and express your own opinion which is at least as subjective as mine and, on top of that, you try to teach me how and what to think. I find this quite a bit offensive to me and also plenty arrogant. So, in turn, I will start by teaching you that a blog is that where a person is putting down his/her own ideas. Of course they will be mine and I do not expect them to be the ultimate truth. It is my honest view which you can take or leave. In return, I expect you to explain in your answer why you disagree with my points, but without attacking my ideas. Nothing gives you the right to do that. I did not shove my blog down your throat, so why are you so rude?

For politics: please, give me a break! You cannot truly believe politics are not part of any competition, even more so in such a big competition as Queen Elisabeth. These competitions are not only launching the careers of these young violinists, but also are boosting the name of their teachers resulting in more and better students as well as higher fees and invitations in more juries.

Your phrase: "It is rare to see somebody who speaks out the music in it's natural way without sentimentalism or artificial view. Baranov just did that. Baranov just came with a bit of fresh air." can even better describe Tseng's Brahms, as well as Narita's Paganini or Shin's Sibelius. If you believe Baranov's playing was honesty embodied we will have to agree to disagree. It is really my opinion that he played for show but I won't present my argument once again.

You also write: "For me, him and Shishkov are the gifted artists. The rest was a lot of sport, brain, show...not much feeling." I will ask you just this: did you listen to Tseng's Mozart, to his Kissine or his Ravel sonata? Did you really listen to Narita's Ravel sonata in the semifinals ar even his Mozart? Did you hear Shin's Chausson or Yoo's Mendelssohn? If you did and still maintain your statement that we have nothing to talk about.

As for Baranov's "feeling" in Mozart I am happy for you. You were not pained by his complete lack of understanding of the style, lightness and phrase shaping required in such music. Did you not hear the difference between his and Shishkov's Mozarts?

As for the rest of your writing: I see you live in Switzerland so I am puzzled by your rudeness coming from a country filled with wonderful people who are always civilized to each other (I had spend there some time myself learning from the great master Alberto Lysy and Liviu Prunaru and I also know Zvoristeanu personally). Saying things like: "with your kind of thinking you can not afford to speak regarding the depth of an artist." disqualifies you as a partner for any dialogue and simply self-labels you as a jerk - "no offense."

June 4, 2012 at 04:18 PM · Fairly enough you can lable me as a jerk. I admit I over-reacted... but I am glad that as an effect you switched to ''polite'' mode instead of absolute. I know it is your blog, but even like this one should be more respectful towards such a great violinist like Baranov. If you would have been a bit more ''humble'' and compare in a more fair way than I would have not felt the need to interfere. It really bothered me the ease of criticizing. I agree that everybody has the right to an opinion. And I am sure that somehow we are both right in our way. From the side where I stay, I simply did not noticed enough sensibility in your understandig towards Baranov's playing. I don't want to start a child chat about who was better. Just a bit more respect for the winner would have been nice.

You can not expect to express yourself in the way you did and not have an effect. In this case, I hope the effect is that a ''jerk'' like me, forced you to be more of a gentleman. The politicaly corect way of writting to me back, could be a better choice for the main article.Altough I know it just a mask, ment to make me look like the bad guy.

Do not involve Switzerland, since I am not born here.

A sensible subject would be Baranov being fake and making a show. Here we are really on opozite sides. The only reason I can give myself is that you authomaticaly interpreted his extra-movements as making show on purpose. Whatever...

Lysy was a great artist, particulary for his natural and honest playing. This is why Menuhin had him as a protege.

In the end, I apolagize for my rudeness..altough if you would replace my ideeas in nicer words, the essence I would like it to remain. Once you get the CD's give it a try and listen to the whole final while observing where you would feel more the warmth of humanity.

June 4, 2012 at 06:04 PM · Dear Sebastian,

Firstly, I refuse to take lessons in manners and/or moral issues from you. I meant every word I wrote in my initial blogs which I wrote after listening to every minute of every performance in the finals, sometimes going back to the semi finals to reevaluate. As a violinist playing for more than a third of a century over three continents, one who had the privilege of teaching violin at the National University of music, Bucharest for six years before coming to the US and, as we speak, while completing my doctoral degree, I am also teaching violin at Eastman, one who has collaborated with artists such as Kim Kashkashian, I think I have won the right to have an opinion and to express it.

Secondly, maestro Lysy had much more than feeling. He had an impeccable intonation and he made sure his students played perfectly in tune, with the honesty of sounding every note in tune, not only giving the general impression of "in tuneness" as Baranov did in so many places. You have to only listen to Lysy's recordings as well as those of Liviu on youtube to convince yourself.

I did not consider Baranov as fake due to his movements but due to his untidy playing, disregarding notes, rhythms, sound quality, all for the sake of thrilling speed. To me this is the trademark of one searching for cheap success, not respectful enough to the composer to try to find this success inside the music itself. I know you will strongly disagree with this but I cannot do anything about it. It is your right to have your opinion as it is my right to have mine.

I think, in a nutshell, everything boils down to this: you expect me to be more respectful to a great musician such as Baranov while I see no great musician. I guess time will show both of us who was right. If he is a real artist his career will flourish as the careers of some other great winners did. If not...

As for me being or not being a gentleman, well, over the years I learned that it is not someone else's opinion making one a gentleman or not. In my blogs I tried to show how one being in such a jury might think in order to rank such artists. Both in a jury as well as out there in the real world everything is tough. Accuracy, sense of style as well as power to communicate (of which, I do not deny, Baranov has aplenty) cannot miss from such judging. Again, as for the real world, time will show who was right.

Lastly, yes, I did expect reactions to my writing, but I have to admit I expected civilized ones. I also have to apologize for using the word "jerk" in my response to you. It was also a reaction to your attack. I would have expected this kind of attack from Baranov himself who, I am sure, would be completely offended by what I had to say, but I don't remember offending you personally or even knowing you. You were a guest reading my blog, and as a guest...

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