Sunday 16 March 2014
Austrian Cultural Forum
Jury: Bobby Chen, Melvyn Cooper and Julian Jacobson
1st prize: Albert Cano-Smit, Chethams School
2nd prize: Tomoka Kan
3rd prize: James Orrell, Royal Northern College of Music
The Society presented its 2014 Beethoven Junior Intercollegiate Piano Competition on Sunday 16 March at the Austrian Cultural Forum, London when we heard six talented and highly distinctive young performers in their choice of a Sonata, together with the luminously serene B flat Bagatelle, Op 119 No 11. How fortunate they are to already have these masterworks under their fingers. They can be assured that over time the capacity of these works to reflect their own subsequent development and insight will be limitless. As it is, we were aware of budding individuals coming to grips not only with the pianistic challenges but the special imperatives which Beethoven demands. In the words of Julian Jacobson in announcing the Jury’s verdict, clarity and honesty are the attributes above all, and the ability to join your performer’s passion with Beethoven’s.
The afternoon started with Iain Clarke from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in the Pathetique Sonata. His finale came to life with sharper fingerwork and characterisation than he had shown us earlier and there was some loss of narrative power with intrusive pulse modifications. But there was an air of thoughtful sincerity to his playing. Joshua Venables from the Centre for Young Musicians also lost some rhythmic focus and the lyric eloquence of the opening movement was underplayed with tone that verged on the abrupt. The concluding Bagatelle found him poised and at ease. It must be said that the conditions of performance for these players were not easy. The acoustic of the first-floor drawing room is clear but bright, attributes shared by the instrument. This presents a challenge for the performer who wishes to characterise boldly, without undue inhibition yet keep the sound within a suitable scale. However, it is also true that the listener (at least this one) quickly adjusts to the given ambience and focusses on the distinctive characteristics of each pianist. Lauren Zhang’s facility and determined energy did not avoid over-percussive forcing, yet Beethoven’s uncompromising insistency was also weakened with cosmetic dynamic alterations. The volatility of his dramatic power needs to be focussed within a tighter rhythmic framework. James Orrell of the Royal Northern College of Music, showed an affinity with the confiding, affectionate nature of Op 78’s opening movement and the finale was nimble if a little heavy. The Bagatelle was played with meaning, and he was awarded 3rd place.
Albert Cano-Smit from Chethams School of Music made Op 109 his ambitious choice. He revealed a bold personality, quite prepared to take risks, as in his headlong tempo for the Prestissimo movement,though less successful in revealing the Variations as convincing sequence. The jury (Bobby Chen, Melvyn Cooper and Julian Jacobson) were clearly impressed with the potential revealed in this playing, awarding Albert the first prize. Yet Tomoka Kan’s 2nd Prize programme gave particular pleasure. A subtly voiced Bagatelle was succeeded by a poised and unaffected Pastoral Sonata, Op 28, and it was a delight to experience this disciplined yet thoroughly musical playing.
Written by Stephen Savage