2020 Junior Intercollegiate Piano Competition

Sunday 15 March 2020 
University College School, Hampstead, London

Jury: Leslie Howard, Karl Lutchmayer, Julian Jacobson (BPSE Chair)

1st: Clara Sherratt (Royal College of Music)
2nd: James Wang (Royal Northern College of Music)
3rd: Devin Liu (Royal Academy of Music)

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On Sunday March 15 our annual Beethoven Junior Intercollegiate Piano Competition was held in the spacious concert room of University College School in Hampstead, London. I would like to express our deepest thanks to the Head of Music Chris Dawe and the staff of UCS for enabling us to use their beautiful facilities, including the magnificent Steinway concert grand.

On behalf of the Society I would also like to express my deep gratitude to our
committee member Angela Brownridge for a most generous donation
towards the costs of running this year’s competition.

Sadly this will be the last time many of us will have been able to congregate in this way for the time being, and inevitably the audience was small and the atmosphere somewhat muted. Nevertheless eight splendid young pianists made the trek to NW3 from as far away as Cardiff, Manchester and Birmingham, ensuring a lively and full competition. Each pianist played a complete sonata of his or her own choice together with the set Bagatelle, this year the vigorous, somewhat comic op 126 no 2 in G minor which elicited a particularly fascinating variety of responses. The Bagatelle, as always, could be played either before or after the sonata.

First off was Sophia Wang from Trinity Music Academy. After a slightly nervous Bagatelle, Sophia settled to playing of commitment and some fire in the opening Grave-Allegro of her Pathétique Sonata – the first of three we were to hear in the course of the afternoon. The main points were there, even when the playing still needed more polish, and one could feel her love for the music and a fiery, Beethovenian temperament to build on.

From Chetham’s School of Music, Mariam Loladze-Meredith, after a bright Bagatelle, gave us the first of our three Appassionatas (it’s very understandable that young pianists are drawn to the grand, dramatic, minor key set pieces but i hope they will explore the many sunny or comic sonatas in the interests of a varied diet!). Mariam is an accomplished pianist who is already able to command a good range of tone. Her first movement was strongly felt (even if it could have been tauter in rhythm), but her best playing came in the exciting finale, at a fine, driving tempo.

Devin Liu, from the Royal Academy of Music Junior Department, followed his well played, perhaps slightly cautious Bagatelle with our second Appassionata. This was enjoyed for its very well produced tone and technical security. The treacherous rhythmic cells of the first movement were not quite tight enough, the second movement flowed perhaps a little too easily and the finale could have had more sheer temperament, but Devin’s playing has many fine qualities that bode well for the future.

Nicholas Sanschagrin, the home boy (at University College School), will have a fine Pathétique when he has lived with it for a while longer. He showed a real musical intelligence and his playing is natural and unaffected, with a warm heart in the famous Adagio cantabile.

The Royal Northern College’s James Wang was perhaps the most characterful pianist of the day. He chose one of the most enigmatic of all the sonatas, the E minor op 90 (the one that Schnabel said he had least often played to his own satisfaction) and showed already a thinking approach. His Bagatelle already woke the hall up with its genuine Allegro tempo, alert phrasing and signs of temperament! The sonata had many fine things without perhaps quite sounding totally natural – a blend (in this sonata) of sophistication and simplicity which is very difficult to get right. But he knew the piece extremely well and there was much fine playing to enjoy.

Thomas Park, from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, had something to say in the Bagatelle – natural and quite personal. His Appassionata started well, with a lot of awareness of texture and good observance of the all-important, motivically based rhythms. The later movements were slightly less successful, making one want to hear Thomas again when the sonata has fully grown into, and matured under, his hands.

The Royal College of Music’s Clare Sherratt lightened the atmosphere with our first and only major-key sonata, the delectable – and powerful – A major op 2 no 2. Immediately one enjoyed her bright, clean and responsive playing. There was occasionally an over-insistence on the top line – Beethoven’s texture are always “complete” and indeed complex and we need to hear everything. This continued to the second movement which did not quite have its full gravity and solemnity. But this is a lot to ask of a young player and there was real quality here – and very well prepared in all the detail. A properly kittenish Scherzo – that early Beethoven favourite – led to an affectionate Finale that could have been allowed to unfold just a little more simply and naturally. Her Bagatelle, following the Sonata as a kind of encore, was probably the best, at a genuine Allegro and conveying the piece’s nervous, impulsive humour very well.

Finally Alex Wyatt from the Birmingham Conservatoire brought us full circle with our third Pathétique. Before that his Bagatelle was musically responsive if not quite “finished” as a performance. The Sonata had good qualities, with a driving first movement and a natural flow to the Adagio cantabile, though in general this felt like a performance that was not quite ready. Beethoven’s piano style is unforgiving in its unique combination of emotional intensity and uncompromising, often unpianistic textures, and every sonata needs a lengthy gestation period.

The Jury – Leslie Howard (Foreman), Karl Lutchmayer and myself – quickly agreed on the three prizewinners: third prize went to Devin Liu of the Royal Academy, second to James Wang of the Royal Northern, and the first prizewinner was Clare Sherratt of the Royal College of Music. We congratulate all of them and wish them every success in their studies, and we look forward to presenting Clare in a lunchtime recital in due course.

written by Julian Jacobson

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