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Reviews

Daily Info, Oxford

December 2, 2015

Review by Michael Dornan

 

The Villiers Quartet: Delius, Fauré, Elgar (L'entente cordiale)

Holywell Music Room, Oxford

As the first public act of their residency at Oxford University, the Villiers Quartet gave some quite fascinating works a consummate showing. Early 20th-Century European composers who finally got round to writing for such an ensemble, and the enigmatic slow movements they produced, had the spotlight.

First was Fauré's only string quartet, which he was unable to hear performed as it was his last work. The performance was measured and beautiful, the texture iridescent. The slow movement, constantly changing dynamically and harmonically, had great subtlety and was never allowed to become ponderous. All four players shared a pizzicato motif, but the Holywell Room's bright acoustic (and his frequency-range) made cellist Nick Stringfellow the star, with a special clarity and resonance to his every note. The quartet form had daunted the composer most of his life, Beethoven being such a hard act to follow, but this piece is very much worth hearing.

Delius' Quartet in E minor was the programme's centrepiece - the headline-grabber even if Elgar was the crowd-pleaser. The slow movement, Late Swallows, which has become one of his best known standalone pieces, was originally quite different. That first-performed version rested for almost a century in manuscript form in the British Library. Tonight was a rare presentation of the same, having been transcribed by Dr. Daniel Grimley of Merton who is currently working with the Villiers.

It does contain some entirely different material, and was excellently played. It formed a showcase for the ensemble's synchronicity, as themes were shared, motives passed around the four musicians, and sudden punctuations of pizzicato jumped into. Where the Fauré Andante shifted moodily like cloud-shadows on an English autumn day, the shifts in Delius's I found too capricious and rich. However, this is a matter of taste and no reflection on the performers, and the chance to hear the newly transcribed old version was very interesting.

Elgar's Quartet in E minor was definitely the piece with most contrast - it was during the last movement of the evening that the tempo went up noticeably! But Villiers' great internal communication (listening, watching one another) allowed them to bring maximum expressiveness out of the whole. If I were to nitpick, there was a slight hesitancy in starting new sections where some more 'attack' would have been bracing. Again, the slow movement is notable. Elgar scored something "that (had) never been done beore" - who knows what. There are some theories about private musical ciphers, or a progressive elision of the theme on its recurrences. Answers weren't suggested to that question this evening in the enlightening programme notes, but light was thrown on the peculiar combination of structural lightness and harmonic sturdiness with which Elgar worked.

 

With a logic and flow to the programme, this great and sympathetic venue hosted an excellent ensemble who are to stick around until 2018. Public composition workshops and a New Works Competition are promised - if possible, hear what the Villiers have to bring to a varied repertoire in the new year.

 

-Michael Dornan



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Seen and Heard International


November 15th, 2015


Review by Joseph Kovaks


 

Kohn's Quartet No. 16 – A Twenty-First Century Masterpiece?


Beethoven: String Quartet Opus 18 no. 6
Kohn: 16th String Quartet
Beethoven: String Quartet op 59 no. 2

 

The Villiers quartet performed Beethoven’s Opus 18 no. 6 with enormous vitality and precision. Their exquisite ensemble playing made the entire work enjoyable. The dash of the first movement brought immediate smiles between the players as well as the audience. Their sweet tone in the second movement brought instant pleasure whilst the humour of the third movement had the players almost dancing out of their seats. The drama of the opening of the last movement was happily dissipated by the joyous playing that brought the finale to a close. There could have been no better opening to a chamber concert.

 

Kohn’s 16th Quartet was a huge contrast in its breadth and language. Beginning with a tiny figure in the cello, the first movement gradually built up into a headlong drive that seemed to suffuse the entire work. The second movement’s obvious comedy element rapidly climbed into the instruments’ highest registers that left me wondering where we would be taken next. The answer came from a wonderful viola solo that was taken up by the others into a huge climax that suddenly descended into a sinister figure. Throughout this movement the drive of the first two movements was pressing us forward into the fourth movement whose dance music was evidently enjoyed by the players. Nothing, however, could have prepared me for the fifth and final movement. Performed pianissimo throughout, the slow moving figures cast a mesmeric effect across the entire audience. After the concluding softest of soft chords, the audience sat, transfixed in total silence for nearly half a minute. The quartet and the attending composer took well-deserved, prolonged applause.

 

The Beethoven Opus 59 no. 2 performed after the interval was, despite its excellent presentation, something of an anticlimax. The ominous opening was given a veiled feeling whilst the second movement showed Beethoven ruminating to himself. The only way that this movement can be pulled off is by the players speaking to one another whilst we, in the audience, are given the opportunity to overhear the conversation. The Villiers managed this although it was occasionally difficult to understand whether it was the composer reflecting to himself or the players puzzling their way through this ambiguous movement. The uncertainties of the third movement with its cross rhythms was given a spirited performance that led into a bright performance of the finale. The generous tone and concision provided for this last movement gave the music a degree of certainty that may have occluded some of the feeling of the composer searching, rather than discovering, any answers.

 

As I left the hall along with other members of the audience, I could see Ray Kohn going backstage – no doubt to congratulate the Villiers on their wonderful performance of his work – and I overheard many members of the audience talking amongst themselves about what they had heard. Over and over again they spoke about that amazing final movement of Kohn’s 16thquartet. I left feeling that I had perhaps witnessed a most unusual event – the birth of a 21stcentury masterpiece.

 

-Joseph Kovaks



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Classical Music Magazine, June 2015

Article by Phillip Sommerich




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Musical Opinion Quarterly

April 2015 issue




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Amati Magazine, Article by Jessica Duchen

March 5th, 2015

Villiers Quartet scoops Oxford residency - Amati Magazine





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Classical Music Magazine

February 2015

Review by Guy Weatherall

 




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Gramophone Magazine

January 2015

Review by Andrew Achenbach



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Classical Music Magazine

December 2014

Article by Toby Deller




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BBC Music Magazine

December 2014

Review by Michael Hayes

 



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MusicWeb International, October 2014

CD Review Robert Still: The Four Quartets

by John France

 

In the early 1970s I bought a copy of Robert Still’s Symphonies No.3 & 4 which had been released on LP by Lyrita Recorded Edition (SRCS 46). Since that time I have heard virtually nothing else by this composer. There have been a few recordings over the years including a retrospective of his chamber music on Ismeron JMSCD 8 (review). There is a file on the internet of a radio broadcast of the Concerto for String Orchestra, which is one of the finest examples of that genre. The present CD from Naxos is a timely release that promises to give Still’s music a much wider audience.

A few words about Robert Still will be of interest to potential listeners who may not be familiar with the man and his music. He was born in 1910 and after an education at Eton, he studied history and French at Trinity College, Oxford. Destined for the legal profession, he changed direction and was enrolled at the Royal College of Music where he studied with Frank Kitson and Gordon Jacob. During the Second World War he served with the Royal Artillery. Before the war he had taught music at Eton and the Royal Academy of Music, however after demob in 1946 he settled in Bucklebury in Berkshire to devote himself to composition and musicology. In the 1960s he had further study with Hans Keller. His other interests included psychoanalysis and the playing of sport. He was an Oxford Blue at real tennis. Still wrote a wide range of music including four symphonies, a piano concerto and a large quantity of chamber works for diverse instrumentation. There is an opera, Oedipus and a number of songs. Robert Still died in 1971.

The key to understanding Still’s music is to realise that there was a hiatus in his style. The catalyst for this was his ‘conversations’ with Hans Keller. Until the early 1960s his music had been largely tonal with nods to the pre-war pastoral school, folksong, Tudor music and neo-romanticism. Robert Still realised that he would be unable to make progress in the new musical climate dominated by Britten, Tippett and the post-war avant-garde composers such as Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle. This trajectory was greatly encouraged by the BBC which was actively promoting ‘non-tonal music’. The change in Still’s musical aesthetic was neatly summed up by Keller himself who admitted that he was ‘too old to be taught a new musical language though he proved himself to be very adept at adopting new ways of writing music outside the tonal system.’ Edward Clark, in the liner-notes, points out that anyone wishing to examine this dichotomy of styles should compare the first two Quartets with the last two of the series. It is a great way to approach this music.

I do not want to allow the reader to run away with the idea that Robert Still had changed his style beyond recognition. He never became an avant-garde composer: he made increasing use of dissonance and allowed his music to push towards a more atonal sound.

 

Unfortunately Still was not assiduous in dating his compositions. The only certainty seems to be that Quartet No. 1 was written around 1948 when its premiere took place. It had been forgotten until the present revival. The Quartet No.2 was composed some time later, but before Keller’s injunction to ‘update’ his style took hold. The final two examples date from after he had absorbed the musicologist’s advice.


Listeners nowadays are fortunate in being able to accept a variety of musical styles from a composer. No longer do we regard early ‘tonal’ works as being merely precursors to a ‘mature’ achievement. It is also not necessary to decry music that was not composed in the Glock/Keller ‘approved’ style. I concede that some listeners will find the two early quartets immediately approachable and downright tuneful. Others may regard these as derivative and belonging to an era of music long past its sell-by date in the post-Second World War world. I tend to enjoy the later works more: I feel that there is greater profundity and a deeper introspection in this music. However, the two early quartets are full of delightful music, interest and the sheer joy of being alive. As a cycle they are more unified than the compositional history would suggest. Interestingly, the excellent Robert Still website hints that there may have been a String Quartet No.5.

The liner-notes by Edward Clark are informative and give the listener a good understanding of the ‘dislocation’ of styles in these works. It is prefaced with a short biographical note about the composer. The Villiers Quartet has made these four string quartets their own. I am conscious of a great sympathy in their playing of these works. Certainly, there is no sense of them being patronising in the earlier music: their interpretation of the later ‘atonal’ works is masterly.

So often one says this, but I reiterate: it is hard to believe that four string quartets of such skilful construction, quality and sheer attractiveness have remained hidden for over half a century. This CD is a must for all enthusiasts of British chamber music. I can only hope that much more of Robert Still’s music will be forthcoming.



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The Strad Magazine

December 2014

Review by Peter Quantrill

 



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Classical Source

April 4, 2014
Review by Alan Sanders
 
For the fourteenth of its nineteen events the Barnes Music Festival once again hosted a concert in the attractive location of St Mary’s church, this time in association with the Barnes Music Society.
 
Robert Still (1910-71), his First Quartet opened the programme, is one of those almost-forgotten English composers whose work is now being brought to light. During his lifetime, performances of his music were limited: a few chamber works appeared on LP, and perhaps his greatest success came with a 1962 recording of his Third Symphony by the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Eugene Goossens: Goossens’s last conducting engagement before he died. And not long before the composer’s own death his Fourth Symphony was recorded by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under his protégé Myer Fredman. Still wrote four string quartets, all of which the Villiers Quartet has recorded for a forthcoming issue on Naxos. The thirteen-minute-long First was premiered in 1948: for a second public outing the work has had to wait until now. Rather like the music of William Lloyd Webber, Still’s composition style is uncomplicated, very conservative for its time and provides a pleasant listening experience. The writing is skilful, but the level of invention is not very high. The Villiers musicians at once showed high technical quality and interpretative insight in a sympathetic performance.
 
Delius’s only String Quartet is a challenging work for its players. Its chromaticism and lush harmonies demand precise intonation and great care in the use of tempos, phrasing and dynamics. It isn’t a great work, and certainly not Delius at his best, but it has some inspired passages and is intensely expressive and emotional. The Villiers Quartet succeeded triumphantly in this perfectly judged reading, every one of Delius’s little tricks of rubato beautifully observed. It was no surprise to learn that first-violinist James Dickenson studied the work with the late Christopher Rowland of the Fitzwilliam Quartet, a group that still has this work in its repertoire and which made a distinguished recording of it in 1978.
 
After the interval Daire Halpin joined Dickenson in Holst’s Four Songs. It would have been helpful if the programme-note had revealed that the texts were by unknown authors collected in Mary Segar’s “A Medieval Anthology”, published in 1915, and even better if the texts had been printed, but Halpin sang very beautifully, and the expressive nature of the songs, if not their content, came across well.
 
Elgar’s sole String Quartet explores extended reaches of tonality and for its almost ghostly central slow movement, marked ‘Piacevole’ (peacefully). In this movement the Villiers players chose a tempo that was perhaps a little too brisk to reveal fully the ethereal elements of music that seems to come from another world, but elsewhere they showed close emotional identification with Elgar’s inspiration. Their energy, depth of feeling and almost fierce commitment in the finale was particularly impressive.


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Rochdale Online

October 9, 2013
Review by Graham Marshall
 
The 2013-14 season of six concerts began on Saturday 5 October, when the accomplished musicianship and splendid sonority of the Villiers String Quartet members James Dickenson and Tamaki Higashi (Violins), Carmen Flores (Viola) and Nick Stringfellow (Cello) filled the Heywood Civic Centre hall with delightful sound in a programme which included a centenary tribute to one of England’s great 20th century composers, Benjamin Britten (1913-76), in the form of his Divertimenti (1933).

These three pieces provide the instrumentalists with an opportunity to show off their virtuosity and insight into the composer’s developing personality. They did this with aplomb. The music was meticulously prepared and deliciously served up.

The concert had begun with a vibrant account of one of Beethoven’s early experimental scores, the Quartet in B flat Op. 18 No. 6, in which he explores contrasts – both between and within movements. The comparatively spare textures of the opening movement, the elegant decorations of the Adagio, the shocking rhythms and whirlwind violin solo of the Scherzo and intensely delicate slow introduction to the lively finale were all executed with great precision and poise.

In the second half of the concert there was more English music to admire and enjoy for its distinctive personality. Yorkshire-born (though of German ancestry) Frederick Delius was featured in a most sympathetic performance of the slow movement of a string quartet written just after the First World War. Entitled Late Swallows, this “autumnal soliloquy” has a intensity that obviously spoke directly to the hearts of the players as it did to the audience.

The String Quartet in E minor by Edward Elgar was written against the background of that same war and displays a similar artistic sense of regret to that which permeates the Delius. There had always been a “romantic wistfulness” in Elgar’s music, but here the prevailing mood is decidedly defiant, even aggressive. At the hands of lesser performers there is a risk of sentimentality and showiness. The Villiers Quartet had the measure of the music, and convinced the audience of its integrity, power and depth of feeling.



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The York Press

November 18, 2013
Review by Martin Dreyer
 

The Villiers are cagey about when they first got together. They needn’t be. Although it can barely be five years, they already had deep experience of playing in other ensembles.

It showed throughout their programme of Beethoven, Elgar and Glass for the British Music Society of York (BMS) on Friday.

For this is no quartet of young tyros. The opening Allegro of Beethoven’s Op 18 No 6 was confidently, but not condescendingly, signposted. There was an engaging serenity to the Adagio. Although its trio was a little rough at the edges, the Scherzo’s cross-accents were joyously precise.

But it was the mystical melancholy which opens the finale that took the breath away, brilliantly balanced by a feather-light Allegretto. This movement rarely sounds so persuasive.

Philip Glass’s Fifth String Quartet (1991) depends heavily for its effect on a rock-steady cello line. Nick Stringfellow provided that and more: a solid foundation off which his colleagues could bounce their theatricality.

The potential for monotony of Glass’s minimalism was thus neatly sidestepped, the upper voices matching his commitment and concentration.

After such metronomic tempos, it was a relief to encounter Elgar’s late E minor quartet, which gives the lie to the composer’s sometimes starchy reputation.

In the Villiers’ hands, this was English romanticism in full flood. Especially effective were the slow movement’s heartfelt pastorale, finely chiselled, and the finale’s race for the tape. Experience will out. We shall hear more of this group.



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Soirees at Breinton

Bishopsgate Institute, London - January 15, 2013
Review by Kumi Smith-Gordon
 

First, if I hadn’t checked Facebook yesterday and seen my friend Tamaki’s posting, I would have missed this wonderful opportunity to hear her Villiers Quartet at the Bishopsgate Institute. But luckily I had!

Then, today, I almost gave up going. I did set off allowing enough time to be at Liverpool Street for their 1.10pm concert. However when I drove into the Woking car park I normally use, there was no space! After a frantic search I eventually found a different car park, parked rather terribly and dashed to the station.

Out of breath, I reached the destination just on time. As soon as I sat down, the Villiers Quartet appeared on stage. OK, time to get ready for Haydn and Beethoven!

We heard the following pieces:

- Quartet in G major Op. 77 No.1 by Haydn

- Quartet in B flat major Op. 18 No. 6 by Beethoven

As it started, they brought me into the world of joyous music - what a refreshing and lovely allegro moderato in Haydn’s first movement. That was a strikingly good start to this concert and certainly captured my full attention. Throughout the Haydn piece, the Villiers Quartet maintained their high spirits and full commitment; it was vivid and alive. The 2nd violin, viola and cello worked in fabulous harmony, perfectly supporting the first violin’s beautiful melodies. The dialogue between each instrument was apparent - questions and responses were tossed back and forth between the instruments.

The same could be said for the Beethoven. I particularly liked the adagio, 2nd movement, because it was so serene and tranquil – it put me in a state of mental relaxation! Their full commitment and emotional involvement brought out a reliable and high quality performance.

So, my peaceful one hour went by very quickly! To me it was a perfect lunch time treat. The Quartet will appear at Woking Concert Society in their next season. I very much look forward to it, but I certainly hope to hear them again before that.

By the way the Bishopsgate Institute features some wonderful lunch time recitals on Tuesdays in conjunction with City Music Society. It is one of my favourite venues to escape into music; for further information, please visit www.bishopsgate.org.uk.



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Classical Source

October 30, 2012
Review by Edward Clark
 

Boris Ivanovich Tischenko [Tishchenko] (1939-2010) was, for fifty years, a major figure in St Petersburg’s musical life. After his student years he continued studies with Shostakovich and reputedly became the composer’s favourite pupil. He has left a large legacy in a musical catalogue embracing seven symphonies, six string quartets, numerous concertos, ballets, and lots of chamber and instrumental works. Like Shostakovich, Tischenko investigates further the idioms of parody, irony, and anarchy, expressed with a sardonic smile. Certain works, mainly in the symphonic cycle, have an epic sweep, but, generally, Tishchenko was a commentator on the human condition in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia. He learnt from Shostakovich how to stay sane within an insane system and how to protect his integrity when so many others were losing theirs.

 

This is by way of an introduction to the Fifth String Quartet, written in 1984. It contains all these elements within a classical model, even to the point of an exposition repeat within a sonata-form first movement. The beguiling opening melody gives way to the harshest dissonances. Contrast is very much a part of the whole work, and the tune that begins the finale was written by his young son. Phrases are constantly repeated, melody is heard then obscured; there are abrupt changes in dynamics and between the highest and lowest registers. After all this deviation in mood and temperature the enigmatic, quiet ending causes puzzlement – the composer’s desire to camouflage his sense of truth from the society around him, where hidden eyes and ears were seeking examples of subversion? In the same way that we know little about Shostakovich’s true intentions in many of his works, Tischenko’s art hides behind a mask of inscrutability. Many Russian artists (including filmmakers Andrei Tarkovsky and Alexander Askoldov) share this quality of enigma. The masterful playing of the Villiers String Quartet left a great impression. Using parts supplied by the composer in 2007, the players gave a searing performance.



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Musical Opinion

 

Pushkin House - October 31, 2012
Villiers Quartet & Julian Gallant
Review by Martin Anderson

 

Some, at least, of Shostakovich’s string quartets have long since entered the mainstream, and thanks to the complete recording of the Weinberg quartets by the Quatuor Danel on CPO that cycle, too, is no longer terra incognita, even if they’re still rarities in the concert hall. Still, the number of string quartets by other Russian or Soviet composers that have yet to get a public hearing in Britain is ear-boggling. Between them Filippenko, Galynin, Karamanov, Knipper, Levitin, Peyko, Polovinkin, Salmanov, Steinberg and Zolotarev – to take just the first ten names that come to mind – produced close on fifty. One of the most distinguished quartet-cycles awaiting a British airing is that of the six by Boris Tishchenko (1939–2010), the First, his Op. 8, dating from 1957, and the Sixth, Op. 148, from 2007. That the Fifth, Op. 90 (1984), came to be heard in Pushkin House, the Bloomsbury home of Russian culture in London, on 31 October was thanks to Edward Clark. In St Petersburg in 2007 to organise the First British Music Festival there, Clark was invited to supper chez Tishchenko and was given the scores of his (then) five quartets; he promised the composer to get at least one of them performed and duly kept his word. The composer may not have lived to enjoy the occasion, but he was there symbolically: the Villiers String Quartet was playing from the parts he gave Clark back in St Petersburg.

It’s a seriously good piece. The naïve folk-style of the opening soon evolves into lyrical counterpoint, unfolding over a walking bass. Echoes of Shostakovich are omnipresent, not least in the gently rollicking pace, the mild dissonance of the harmony and the understated satirical tone, as if the music can’t quite take itself seriously. The second part of the ten-minute first movement is given over to extensive contrapuntal development, with the opening material threaded through it. The eight-minute central movement begins with a shy and hesitant question-and-answer session between the first violin and the rest of the quartet, before the cello takes the limelight in an extended solo, followed by the second violin and then the viola. A broad chordal passage then affirms the quality of the music under discussion before the return of the opening. The final movement, eleven minutes in duration, opens with a duo between the first violin and the cello, the one chirruping, the other elegiac; the others then join in, pushing the material in different directions, and an ardent violin solo emerges, with harmonics from the second sounding as if from a different world. The chirruping figure returns more insistently, and the music barrels forward in the kind of cartwheeling allegro encountered elsewhere in Tishchenko’s output, but it is soon replaced by a fast, slightly wrong-footed waltz that veers off course. After an emphatic passage of close, fast, stomping chords, an urgent cello solo attracts supporting comment from the rest of the quartet. The second harmonics return to change the direction of the music, with a sweet first-violin solo over a chugging cello. The pace now winds down, leaving the last word to the chirruping figure in the first violin.

In the second panel of the programme the Villiers String Quartet was joined by Julian Gallant in an admirable performance of the Shostakovich Quintet: feisty, frank, uninhibited, with the enjoyment plain on the faces of the musicians instantly communicated to the audience. The same untrammelled commitment had been evident in the Villiers’ handling of the Tishchenko. Musicians sometimes respond to unfamiliar music with cautious performances, but not these musicians and not this performance: it made the case for the work with conviction and confidence.

Let’s hear it for the shorter concert, too: there are early-evening and late-evening concerts of about an hour apiece, but not many mid-evening events that give you enough music to think about and then free you for a drink and dinner afterwards. It’s something to be encouraged.



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Musical Toronto

April 29, 2012
Review by John Terauds
 

Riho Maimets emerged as the winner in today’s competition.  The London-based Villiers Quartet is concluding a new-works competition this morning with a web-streamed performance of the three finalists, which includes Sanctus by 24-year-old Torontonian Riho Maimets. He is currently finishing up his Masters degree in composition at University of Toronto.

The three finalists came from a group of six semi-finalists, whose works were posted on YouTube for virtual audience voting. People anywhere in the world will be able to vote until 11:30 a.m. Eastern today to help determine the winner.

Competing against Maimets are Chris Roe, a Masters composition student at the Royal College of Music in London, also born in 1988. His work is called Jetez. The United States is represented by Henry B. Stewart’s Threnody/Images. Stewart, who was born in 1992, is an undergraduate at Goshen College in Indiana, in a joint undergraduate major of biochemistry and composition.

Whether by chance or design, the three works represent the wide spectrum of new music out there, with Roe’s piece representing the world of atonal explorations in interesting string effects and Maimets’ taking a stand for a return to traditional counterpoint and melody underpinned by recognizable harmony.

Stewart sits dead centre, which suggests to me that he has the best chance of winning. What was available online before today’s final performance suggested a nice mix of atmosphere and movement. But this is just a wild guess, of course.

(Maimets’ work won, showing how good my guessing can be.)

Here are bit of the three finalists’ pieces, played by the Villiers Quartet. It’s Rose, followed by Maimets and Stewart.

Important to note, whether or not Maimets wins, is that he is a product of Toronto’s Claude Watson School of the Arts, where he landed as a teenager. It is there where his interest in composition was allowed to blossom before he had to make the decision of what he should do in university.

Maimets is off to Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute for more studies in composition in the fall.

You can hear more samples of his work, which can be far more adventurous than Sanctus, on Sound Cloud, here.

John Terauds



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