Birmingham International Piano Competition review



Birmingham Town Hall ****

It was impossible to envy the jury of the 2019 Birmingham International Piano Competition. Between the three finalists, each playing a 40-minute mini-recital of three pieces, the most imposing single performance - by a mile - was Karnsiri Laothamatas's closing account of Samuel Barber's 1949 Piano Sonata. It's a bruiser of a piece, but she had it under absolute control: walls of steel-grey tone lit by distant flashes of lightning, transparent pools of eerie calm, and a final fugue handled with the formal command and muscular power of a Soviet ballet dancer. The audience seemed slightly shell-shocked.

But this was a competition, after all; and so this had to be set against Laothamatas's slick but unengaging and occasionally shaky performances of Scarlatti and Scriabin. And how do you begin to measure that against the young Spaniard Juan Mas Choclán's subtle but slightly incoherent Prokofiev Visions Fugitives and splashy Chopin? Chopin, of course, has the virtue of familiarity: an audience is more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt, though fair play to Choclán for finishing with an atmospheric performance of Granados' El amor y la muerte. He was placed third.

But the first prize, as well as the audience vote, went to Ana Gogava, a graduate of the Guildhall, born in Georgia. Her Mozart Sonata K.575 was lucid, lively and graceful, with passagework draped like garlands, and phrases glinting and smiling in the sunlight. Schumann's late and uningratiating Gesange der Frühe didn't really do her any favours, but she was back on form in Liszt's Mephisto Waltz No.1, in a gleefully extrovert, vividly characterised performance that showed that her poetic instincts were matched by old-school virtuoso chops. Not, perhaps, the most sophisticated performance of the day – but certainly the one that communicated most directly. That should never be discounted.

Richard Bratby

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