2012 Senior Intercollegiate Piano Competition

Sunday 25 November 2012, Austrian Cultural Forum

Jury: John Lill CBE, Murray McLachlan and Malcolm Troup

1st prize: Min Jung Baek, Guildhall School of Music and Drama
2nd prize: Mohamed Shams-Eldin, Royal Conservatory of Scotland
3rd prize (joint): Jun Ishimura (Royal College of Music)  / Alexander Panfilov (Royal Northern College of Music)

The pianist selected as winner of the 20th BPSE Intercollegiate Beethoven Piano Competition was Min Jung Baek from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, for her expressive and eloquently controlled account of Beethoven’s Sonata Op 111 at the climax of the event, held on Sunday 25 November 2012 at the elegant surrounds of the Austrian Cultural Forum near London’s Hyde Park. The well attended event featured nine talented pianists drawn, as in previous years, from leading conservatoires and music departments around the UK. Introduced by BPSE’s UK Chairman Malcolm Troup and Vice Chairman Alberto Portugheis, each competitor performed a Beethoven Sonata of their choice as well as the compulsory Bagatelle in C minor Op 119 No 5, before a distinguished jury comprising the internationally acclaimed pianists John Lill, CBE, Murray McLachlan, Head of Keyboard at Chetham’s School of Music, and Malcolm Troup.

The large and distinguished audience, including BPSE patrons William Brown CBE and Mrs Nachiko Brown, were regaled with an inspiring programme spanning Beethoven’s 32 sonatas: in contrast to previous years where one competition might frequently feature a plethora of ‘Appassionata’ sonatas, a couple of ‘Waldstein’s and two or three Op 110s, the choice of repertory for this twentieth competition was varied enough to warrant a logical programming of three groups of three sonatas in chronological and stylistic sequence.

Thus the first group began with the Sonata Op 2 No 2 in A major, played by Thomas Ang (Royal Academy of Music), an interpretation which really took flight only in the third movement, which sizzled with delicacy and brilliance. The rest of the work fared less well — despite some promising technical assurance. The opening movements seemed rather thick set, clear yet four-square, with an under-emphasis of subtlety of phrasing, an aspect which also coloured the finale, which might have benefited from greater rhythmic and tonal delicacy. The staccato bass line of the Largo appassionato seemed over-ponderous, which, with unvarying dynamics, somewhat obscured the movement’s impassioned expressivity. This was perhaps a case of reading nineteenth century values into an eighteenth century context.

By contrast the performance by Paul Israel (Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama) of the Sonata Op 2 No 3 in C major enjoyed lightness and chiaroscuro, as well as brilliance where required, even if there were also inaccuracies and a certain carelessness of articulation by which some of Beethoven’s invention was lost to the ear. Finesse in the thirds-based main subject of the first movement was admirable, as too the effervescence of the pianist’s arpeggio passagework, and clarity in the myriad themes which ensued during the movement. The development was dramatically involving and, all in all, the sense of colour and line of this youthful masterpiece flowed with drama. So also the slow movement, with its sudden interjections of martial rhythms into the flowing arpeggio textures, though here the cross-hands dialogue of bass and treble threatened to fragment due to a loss of control, whilst the arpeggio strand might have benefited from a smoother presence. Israel launched into the Scherzo at an electric pace, yet could not quite sustain a constant pulse through all the leaping registral changes, losing a degree of definition despite the main motivic structure being effectively pointed and articulated. Again, while his finale radiated potent drama and bravura, his shaping of the long breathed phrases, the underlying melodic lines beneath the chordal textures, needed greater focus. Overall Paul Israel’s approach was full of potential that one hopes will blossom as his pianistic maturity develops.

The final ‘early’ sonata of the first group was the Sonata in E flat Op 7, a work that combines ebullient energy with rhythmic surprise, played impressively by Mohamed Shams-Eldin (Royal College of Scotland). Shams-Eldin’s relaxed demeanour at the keyboard belied his technical confidence and discipline, and his response to the subtleties of phrasing and classical gesture was engaging and compelling. In the first movement, motivic details were woven into a coherent canvas, the music sweeping through each paragraph with contrapuntal clarity to its goal. The slow movement reached a height of eloquence in its operatic combination of lyricism and tension, and after a balance of poise and passion in the Scherzo, the finale tripped along in an appealingly relaxed fluidity. Here was a fully rounded performance of maturity and polish, which, with a mellowing of pianistic tone control, foretold considerable achievements ahead.

The second group began with Op 10 No 3 in D major, receiving a fervent and momentum-filled account by Linyang Wang (Birmingham Conservatoire), fully evocative of Beethoven’s youthful idiom. The richness of invention arising from motivic economy, driving, often syncopated momentum, the contrapuntal and chromatic intensity: all came across in the first movement with polished precision and variety of touch. There was an involving and evolving sense of mystery in the Largo e mesto, and if perhaps the lines could have been more sharply drawn in the Menuetto, its diversity of textures was colourfully conveyed. Perhaps the main shortcomings here were a lack of extrovert humour in both the Trio and the fragmentary syntax of the finale, which was correct but slightly one dimensional. Nevertheless it represented a convincing performance of a large scale work pushing at the boundaries of Beethoven’s more romantic nineteenth century style.

It was that new style which was hinted at in the account of the Sonata in C sharp minor ‘Moonlight’ that followed — played by Katerina Perdikomati (Goldsmiths College) — and which was most impressively portrayed in one of the most thrilling performances of the competition, that of the Sonata in F minor Op 57, ‘Appassionata’, given by Alexander Panfilov (Royal Northern College of Music). Technically as well as interpretatively there were some weaknesses in Ms Perdikomati’s account, for instance a lack of contrast in balancing the strands of the first movement, which artists such as Schiff experimentally shade with a fully sustained pedal to achieve a harp-like resonance, and which here needed a more magical approach to sonority. There was also an overdose of rubato at structural junctions evident in all three movements, resulting in a reduction of dramatic tension, despite the strong subjective intentionality of her playing.

Looming large over the instrument, Alexander Panfilov displayed a delicacy and control that infused his reading of Op 57 with unusual clarity, precision and expressionistic power, a reading which did not pull back at the galvanic unleashing of fortissimo outbursts yet also valued the emphasis of local gesture and motif. There was exciting crystalline precision to the arpeggio figurations, over which thematic ideas were etched with sculpted logic, and a clear understanding of tonal direction in the sonata structures of the outer movements. The variations similarly flowed with inner urgency, though perhaps a greater degree of poetic tranquillity might have been of benefit, and the finale was riveting from start to finish. Overall the main drawback of this performance was the acoustic of the room in relation to the power of the pianistic sound: had Panfilov been performing in the Royal Festival Hall (a pleasure to come, one hopes) then the levels would have been correct, but even more than the previous competitors, his output was well into the red and needed an adjustment to the master volume.

It was fortuitous that all three late sonatas Opp 109, 110 and 111 were offered, resulting in an exhilarating final group. Jun Ishimura (Royal College of Music) gave an enthralling account of Op 109, attaining a limpid, luminescent pianistic tone in the filigree of the first movement, power-packed vigour in the Prestissimo and ravishing and well-controlled dynamic textures in the variations. Here the dynamic level of the instrument seemed far better managed (than in Op 57) even if there was room for a touch more breadth and expansive breathing in the theme and variations, which soared, yet could have reached even more stratospheric heights.

That visionary fervency took shape in the Adagio ma non troppo and Fugue of Op 110 in A flat, given a compelling rendition by Manuel Santos (Trinity Laban), though one marred by a few technical hesitancies. Yet even if his first movement’s arpeggio filigree was not entirely smooth, the motivic lines projected with a slightly lacklustre tone, and the Fugue’s texture projected some inconsistencies, nevertheless Santos’ was a reading of cogent complexity, one which penetrated into the heart of the music, and was worthy of commendation.

If during the competition thus far, the balanced combination of technical proficiency and interpretative maturity had yet to be fully realised, in the event it arrived in the form of Min Jung Baek (Guildhall School of Music and Drama), the last competitor, who drew out all her resources for an exhilarating account of Beethoven’s final sonata in C, Op 111. The first movement was full of energy and propulsive purposefulness, the full range of pianistic tone exploited, the inner calm of the Arietta following with a sense of inevitability, the piano’s resonances in the variations evolving towards the ethereal effects in the high registers and half-veiled sounds of filigree over pedal points and trills. It was no wonder that her performance was the one chosen by the jury for first prize.

Indeed, welcoming his jury colleagues back to announce the winners, Malcolm Troup reminisced about the Society’s formation twenty years ago, recalling the inaugural Beethoven Marathon at the Guildhall School of Music in the Spring of 1993, where his own participation, alongside the late Kendall Taylor CBE (1905-1999), the BPSE’s past Chairman, Carola Grindea (1914-2009), founder of EPTA, was followed by John Lill’s climactic performance of Op 111. It was appropriate that the current 20th competition should be won by a Guildhall student with the same work!

It was the turn of John Lill CBE to announce the prizes, and he began by applauding all the competitors for what he considered to have been performances of a very high standard, all of them showing impressive qualities and confirming in his mind that all the participants had bright futures ahead of them. First prize went to Min Jung Baek, for her compelling Op 111, with second prize awarded to Mohamed Shams-Eldin, of the Royal Conservatory of Scotland, for his searching performance of the early Sonata in E flat Op 7; joint 3rd prize was shared by Jun Ishimura (RCM), for her eloquent Op 109 and Alexander Panfilov (RNCM) for his power-packed rendition of Op 57.

The event as a whole formed an uplifting concert of Beethoven’s works, more of which one hopes to hear at the BPSE Junior Intercollegiate Competition in March 2013, also at the warmly-appreciated hospitality of the Austrian Cultural Forum. To conclude the proceedings, the Master of the Worshipful Company of Musicians, Professor John Morehen, presented the winner with the Beethoven medal which, when engraved, will formally be presented at the BPSE prizewinner’s recital in August 2013.

Copyright (c) 27 December 2012 Malcolm Miller

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