Charlotte Gardner head shot

We asked classical music journalist and critic Charlotte Gardner to tell us about a performance that has really stoodoutfor her due to its imaginative programming. Here are her reflections, as told to Sean Dunn.

A proviso

The most important thing as a critic: it’s not necessarily the programme. I’ve been captivated for the first time by young artists purely on the strength of their playing and, ultimately for me, that is always, always, what is at the top. People have struck me who’ve played a programme of core repertoire that will sit nicely together but there aren’t necessarily obvious links, and what has mattered for me is the marriage of head and heart, of technique, and soul: people who have had me hanging on for the next note - even though I know what note is coming and how it should sound, I want to hear how it sounds in their voice.


The Ruisi Quartet

Where and when?

February 2019 at St John’s Smith Square

The programme

Purcell - Three Fantasias

Stravinsky - Three Pieces

Haydn - op 71 no 3 in E flat major

Mendelssohn - Quartet no. 2 in A minor, op. 13


It was the first pieces - the Purcell and the Stravinsky - that absolutely sent my jaw flying to the floor. It was the fact they - rather than playing the two pieces separately - jumbled them up so they interspersed the fantasias with the Stravinsky. I’d never heard of this being done before - they weren’t pieces that I naturally would have put together - but they made a musical case for it. On the one hand, it was actually quite a shocking sound: to move from the Purcell to the Stravinsky and then back again.

The Purcell, with its abundance of musical ideas, met Stravinsky’s absolutely focused and singled-minded treatment of ideas. And the fact that Stravinsky, in his later life, was very interested in early music as well. One moment you were in the performance practice of the baroque era, and the next moment you were in the performance practice of the neoclassical.

In many ways that programme’s the perfect example of a really innovative pairing of works which shocked - but shocked with a very musical reason and musicological reason behind it - and was brought alive by the stylistic interpretations; and then the second half which was really core, straight down the middle: here is a great piece.

Programming for endangered species

I always wonder what’s going on when a young artist - violists particularly - presents a programme which is full of arrangements for the viola rather than works that are specifically for the viola.

If you’re going to do a programme of arrangements - fine - but there has to be a musical reason.

Too often when I have heard viola players give recitals, for whatever reason they’ve chosen arrangements for the majority of their recital, and I’ve been left thinking “well, why are you playing the viola then?” Arrangements and transcriptions are absolutely valid when you are championing some repertoire for your instrument - maybe claiming it for the first time - but there has to be some thought behind it.

Charlotte's example of highly successful programming was a performance by former YCAT violist, Timothy Ridout

Bridge: Pensiero and Allegro appassionato

Britten: Lachrymae for viola and piano, Op. 48

York Bowen: Viola Sonata No.1 in C minor, Op.18

Festival Commission

Shining the spotlight on English 20th century viola music - the viola came across incredibly as a solo instrument. You knew this was a man who is passionate about his instrument.

Hope for the future

At the end of the day, journalists like me and programmers ultimately are interested in talent; in excellence; the excitement of the new; tempting in new audiences.

During an economic downturn, promoters and programmers are, on the whole, less inclined to take risks. But on the other hand, for programmers, reduced budgets might rule out the most famous (expensive) artists, which offers a very interesting proposition to emerging artists.

Regardless of Covid, programmers will always - if they’re captivated by a young artist’s idea and their playing - want to take a risk anyway.

The pandemic has also prompted some wonderful innovation from artists, such as Jean-Selim Abdelmoula’s wonderful, enterprising videos and Jennifer Johnston programming some really interesting mini performances at the Bitesize Proms.

Be aware that it’s a very tough environment but our attitude towards young artists and the need for the new, the exciting, and good ideas that will attract audiences and excite everybody - that need is always there and is going to be even more in demand as we try to fill concert halls over the coming years.

Click here to sign up to the 21cMusician newsletter