Birmingham International Piano Competition by Christopher Morley
Birmingham Town Hall
Forty years since its founding, the Robert William and Florence Amy Brant Pianoforte Competition (and what a formidable and tireless administrator their daughter Gladys Lily was) last weekend was relaunched as the Birmingham International Piano Competition.
The structure remains the same: preliminary and semifinal recitals specifying particular composers, a final whose only requirement is that the three competitors choose three different composers for their 40-minute programmes; there are some who feel that a concerto with orchestra would provide more of a sense of occasion.
One wonders if the in-the-round seating, while fascinating for the audience, might mean the proximity is intimidating for the players, particularly when so many of the listeners here appeared to be asleep at one time or another, so up close and personal.
Whatever the case, this year's finalists presented well-balanced, imaginative programmes, performing with poise and quiet confidence, beginning with Belarusian Andrei Ivanov delivering well-delineated accounts of Bach (Toccata in D minor), two Debussy Etudes, and a well-built Rachmaninov Second Sonata.
Australian Kathy Chow surmounted a delayed start (she arrived at the piano while the judges were still nowhere to be seen) traversing the keyboard fluently in Chopin's Fourth Ballade, Brahms' Schumann Variations, and in a driving Bartok Sonata.
And Peggy Wu from Hong Kong gave captivatingly rounded performances of her offerings (some Schumann Fantasiestucke, Book I of Debussy's Images -- fantastic Mouvements--, and Prokofiev's Third Sonata), not just accuracy-obsessed -- in fact surviving a late memory-lapse in the Prokofiev, which is a sign of true skill and musicianship -- but also taking joyful delight in every note she drew from the keyboard.
She was awarded the Alan Woodfield Audience prize, and was voted second by the jury of Ronan O'Hora, Anna Tilbrook and Richard Hawley. Ivanov was given third prize, with Chow declared the winner. Post-result audience conversation was interesting.