In the past year, big, tuneful, Romantic works have dominated violin competition finals, leaving little room for Classical and 20th Century works, writes Charlotte Smith

Histrionics

In the cut-throat world of violin competitions, contestants must do everything they can to distinguish themselves from the crowd. Factors such as communication, stage presence and the ability to convey a variety of tone colours can all help to nudge a candidate ahead of their peers – and as diligently as everyone has practised the notes, there will always be those for whom pinpoint intonation or exceptional fluidity of fingerwork will prove to be the deciding factor.

But what about the choice of concerto? Almost without exception, the big international competitions expect a substantial concerto with orchestra in their final round – and in the case of Russia’s Tchaikovsky Competition, two concertos back to back. It stands to reason at this climactic stage that the choice of work must contain enough variety and sparkle to show off a candidate to their best advantage.

In October, 27-year-old Russian Sergei Dogadin, no stranger to the competitive circuit having won big at the Paganini and Tchaikovsky competitions in the past, took first prize at the Joseph Joachim International Violin Competition Hannover with Shostakovich’s First Concerto – but this is an exception to the type of work that usually wins.

In the past year or so, big, tuneful, romantic concertos have dominated the finals. At the Singapore International Violin Competition in February, Yu-Chien Tseng won with the Sibelius. He went on to repeat that victory with the same concerto at the Tchaikovsky Competition in June, achieving the top prize. In the same month, Australian violinist Suyeon Kang triumphed with the Sibelius at New Zealand’s Michael Hill International Violin Competition. At the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Belgium in May, Ji Young Lim impressed the judges with her rendition of the Brahms Concerto, while at the Indianapolis Violin Competition in 2014, Jinjoo Cho topped the list with the ever more popular Korngold Violin Concerto.

So what does this tell us?

Shostakovich’s First Concerto and the Beethoven Concerto have both featured in several competition finals of the last year, but until Dogadin’s win, they’ve failed to produce the goods. Yet while no one can argue against the artistic merit of either work, both do present challenges for the performer when it comes to connecting with the audience.

Beethoven’s perfectly balanced scales and arpeggios – a cathedral of Classical construction – can sound a little too much like, well, scales and arpeggios in all but the most skilled hands. The work also offers multiple opportunities for the performer to fall short – with little showy passagework to hide behind, only flawless intonation is acceptable, and the tone must be completely pure. In addition, given that many competitions these days require Mozart in the semi-finals, it is possible that Beethoven skews a competitor’s overall programme towards an excess of Classicism.

The Shostakovich is equally problematic – in the sustained, ethereal opening, which could be approached in a romantic way, the player must keep emotion in check in adherence to the composer’s instruction for ‘the suppression of feelings’, and therefore cannot be played thus. Furthermore, the later passagework can start to sound relentlessly forced when played by less-than-exceptional violinists keen to project to the furthest reaches of the concert hall.

Compare both these works with the warm and tuneful Brahms, the alluring Hollywood sound of the Korngold, or to the by turns fragile, romantic and technically dazzling Sibelius, and one starts to wonder if the choice of work might have a far bigger part to play in competition results than we would like to accept. And if this is the case, are juries and audiences – even if only subconsciously – voting as much for the work that delivers emotionally as for the performer who interprets it?

Read: Why no Gold Medal violinist at this year’s Tchaikovsky Competition?