Surprises at the 21st BPSE Senior Competition, 26 March 2023

First Prize Xiaowen Shang
Second Prize Sinae Sung
Third Prize Nick Zhou
Carola Grindea Prize Mario Bobotsov

The BPSE’s annual Intercollegiate Beethoven Piano Competitions are ever full of surprises. The Junior competition on 19 March 2023 was of an unusually high standard, and whilst we were enjoying a succession of excellent performances, the final candidate, Oliver Hak representing RCS Junior Conservatoire, appeared with a simply superb rendering of the Op.7 sonata, and won. Fast-forward to the Senior Competition on 26 March 2023 – a date marking the 296th anniversary of Beethoven’s death – and the final candidate similarly appeared with the same Op. 7 sonata – and won! What is it about that ‘Grande Sonate’, I wonder, which appeals to competition juries? Is it the large scale four movement form, the wildly dramatic moods, or, – as in the expansive slow movement, the moments of poetry, or is it perhaps the technical challenges that look towards the expansions of Beethoven’s middle period? Or is it perhaps that the oft-chosen ‘late’ sonatas are simply too elusive for young under – or postgraduates, whose technically impressive accounts may fall short of the requisite personal, spiritual intensity? Whatever the exact reason, 2023 was the year of the Op.7 winner.

The event attracted a select, enthusiastic audience to City Lit’s recital hall to hear the seven candidates, chosen from different UK conservatoires, performed before a jury comprising distinguished pianists John Lenehan, Jan Loeffler and Julian Jacobson, BPSE Chairman. First to perform was Sinae Sung (Royal Scottish Academy) in a pleasantly satisfying account of the delightful op.2/2; there followed a fervently stirring, if somewhat over-pedalled Op.111 by Stefan Weidner (Trinity Laban Conservatoire). Next was a dynamic Op.81a projected by Mario Bobotsov (Royal Birmingham Conservatoire) with plenty of energy marred by only a few wrong note blemishes. The second set opened with a precise and crisply textured, yet somewhat emotionally detached Op.109 by Xizong Chen (Royal Northern Conservatoire of Music), followed by a deeply felt, technically accomplished and elegantly shaped Op.110 by Nick Zhou (Royal College of Music). The final candidate, Xiaowen Shang (Royal Academy of Music) chose the Op.7 sonata, giving a sharply characterised, yet somewhat mannerist account. In addition, each candidate also performed the compulsory Bagatelle in A flat Op. 33/7, showing a wide range of approaches, my favourites being Nick Zhou’s and Xiaowen Shang’s aptly capricious interpretations. The Jury’s decision, announced by John Lenehan on behalf of fellow jurors, was unanimous, and clearly appreciative of the vitality, colour and communicability of Xiaowen Shang’s performance. Shang was awarded first prize, with Sinae Sung in second place and Nick Zhou third; the special Carola Grindea Prize was accorded to Mario Bobotsov. The first prize winner receives the Beethoven Medal awarded by the Worshipful Company of Musicians, whilst all three winners receive cash and sheet music prizes, and are invited to perform in BPSE and BPSE-related recitals, including at St James’ Piccadilly, St Martin-in-the-Fields, and in the Intermezzo lunchtime series at the Sternberg Centre, East Finchley.

–Malcolm Miller

From left to right: Stephan Weidner, Jan Loeffler (Jury member), Mario Bobotsov, Nick Zhou, Xiaowen Shang, Sinae Sung, Julian Jacobson (Jury member), John Lenehan (Jury Chair), Xizong Chen.