The Beethoven Intercollegiate Piano Competition,
reviewed by MANUS CAREY
Eight pianists from the various British music colleges, excluding Birmingham, gathered together at the Austrian Cultural Forum on 17 December 2004 for last year's Beethoven Intercollegiate Piano Competition hosted by the Beethoven Piano Society of Europe. A panel of the three eminent pianists, Sulamita Aronovsky, Kenneth van Barthold and Stephen Kovacevich, were present to listen to the variety of sonatas, which offered a synopsis of Beethoven's compositional output for piano from the early Op 2 to the final Op 111. In addition to their chosen sonata, each player was required to perform the late G major Bagatelle Op 119, an enigmatic, emotionally compact and interpretatively challenging work. There was a remarkable diversity in the various performances, with two players in particular providing a thoroughly convincing reading: Yumi Tanaka made complete sense of the angular phrase structure of this miniature, with a strongly etched sense of musical line; Lulu Young provided a beautifully characterised account, combining textural clarity, drama and a sense of dance with a humour that was absent from the other performances.
Miyuki Kato opened the competition with the Op 2 No 2 sonata, and Hiroaki Takenouchi finished the evening with an individual account of Op 111. In between two very different performances of the Appassionata sonata were given. Grace Mo's was fiercely dramatic, extrovert and frequently demonic, with orchestral outbursts that pushed the piano to extremes: the third movement in particular was successful in its chilling acerbity. Yoon-Kyung Kim's was more controlled, yet an equally dramatic account, finding moments of warmth: an overall understanding of inner pulse and momentum were evident, in addition to a subtle manipulation of the moments of rest for musical effect.
The more persuasive sonata performances seemed to be those who looked beyond the piano, searching for orchestral effects and sonorites. Lulu Young's Op 31 No 1 was one such performance, whose second movement was completely orchestral in conception, with a third movement that was dramatically virtuoso, but never breathless. In contrast, Li You's Op 31 No 3, while displaying some fine pianism, was more one-dimensional in its outlook. The most compelling piano playing of the day was without doubt Yumi Tanaka's Op 110, who was constantly musically convincing with a natural fluency and round warmth to her touch. At certain moments her reading of this sonata had too much forward momentum, perhaps at times emotionally simplistic for such a work -- more beautiful than tragic. In the end she received a third placing, perhaps lower than she deserved. In second place came Christopher Stokes, whose buoyant, easy-natured, almost nonchalant performance of Op 78 was impressive if a little too Mozartian in touch. Yoon-Kyung Kim received a deserved first prize for her Appassionata performance. Quite surprising was Lulu Young's lack of recognition from the judges: her captivating playing of Op 31 No 1, however, did not go completely unnoticed by the general public who gave her their 'audience' prize.