2011 Junior Intercollegiate Piano Competition

Sunday 20 March 2011
Austrian Cultural Forum

Jury: Benjamin Kaplan, Noretta Conci-Leech and Angela Brownridge

1st prize: Thomas Hicks, Chetham’s School
2nd prize: Han Seul Lee, Royal Academy of Music

The annual Junior Competition held by the Beethoven Piano Society of Europe took place on Sunday March 20 in the elegant concert room of the Austrian Cultural Forum in South Kensington, London. A select group of four young pianists, from the Royal Academy and Royal Northern College junior departments and Chetham’s and Wells specialist schools, performed the set work, the early (but not so early) little (but not so little) C minor Allegretto WoO 53, followed by an own-choice sonata.

Indeed the Allegretto turned out to be a cunning choice: no obvious technical difficulties but lean, concentrated and subtly subversive. One or two of the young pianists smoothed it over too much, making it a fluent, graceful one-in-a-bar when a tense and fairly swift three-in-a-bar, such as Han Seul Lee (RAM) offered, gives it much more Beethovenian edge. Thomas Hicks (Chetham’s) was also good here, and delivered the most convincingly characterised account of the “recitativo patetico” passage near the end. They all had good qualities though I generally missed a kind of harmonic density – something that may be easier to get right in the more spacious and formal architecture of sonata form.

Jâns Coleman, from the RNCM, gave us the lovely A flat Sonata op 26, less popular now than it once was. He was rather nervous and technically inhibited on this showing but is clearly a warm-hearted and serious pianist. The third movement Funeral March suited him well, as did some of the Variations of the first movement (one of the very few in Beethoven’s output (the late 1790s) not in sonata form).

From Wells Cathedral School, Hyo-Jung Roh impressed with the sincerity and musical naturalness of her playing. Her Allegretto was perhaps rather Mozartean in its graceful delicacy, though there was fire and drive in it, too. The D minor Sonata op.31 no 2 was less convincing, needing tighter rhythmic control and more feeling for symphonic drama than she can muster as yet. Nevertheless, the impression remained of a sympathetic and promising player.

Thomas Hicks, from Chetham’s School, confident and artistic, listened well and respected the acoustic space. He picked the E minor Sonata, op 90, a subtle and elusive two-movement work from a transitional period of Beethoven’s life when he had largely finished with the mighty statements of his “second period” but before he had forged the sublime integration of his late masterpieces. Thomas came over to me as having thought seriously about the issues, even if not everything had settled down: work in progress maybe, but good work. Mainly I found his rondo second movement a bit too slow and ‘Romantic’; but his fluent and secure technique throughout were a pleasure in themselves, and in the future he will surely penetrate more deeply into the special character of this sonata — the one that Schnabel said he had least often played to his own satisfaction.

Finally the RAM’s Han Seul Lee opened with an alert and concentrated Allegretto. Her Sonata (op 81a, “Les Adieux”) was at its best (as is perhaps the sonata itself) in the slow introduction to the first movement, with some perceptive phrasing and good harmonic awareness. The main Allegro was less engaging, needing more energy and a tighter structure. The second, “Absence” movement, apart from some misjudged rubato, went well, and the “Retour” finale certainly had energy, at a sparking tempo, even if it felt a little impersonal after the commitment she brought to the opening.

The distinguished Jury, comprising Benjamin Kaplan, Noretta Conci-Leech and Angela Brownridge, unanimously awarded the first prize to Thomas Hicks and the second to Han Seul Lee. Benjamin Kaplan, the Chairman of the Jury, offered some cogent advice to the young players, stressing the greatness of Beethoven and how one must understand and respect all his indications, as well as enjoining them to think more deeply about the music and how to realise it in precisely imagined sound.

Cash prizes were presented to Thomas Hicks and Han Seul Lee, and all the participants received a copy of “Arietta”, journal of the BPSE. Thomas Hicks was also offered a recital in the Society’s London concert series. Thanks were offered to Andrea Rauter of the Austrian Cultural Forum for their generous hosting of the event.

Written by Julian Jacobson © 2011