Symphony Hall, Birmingham *****


From the humblest of beginnings as a music festival class for a Rose Bowl prize held in a living-room, the Dudley International Piano Competition has grown into one of the UK’s major competitions. Over 55 years I have followed its progress until now it holds its preliminary recital rounds in Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, with the Concerto Final at Symphony Hall, accompanied by the CBSO, no less, conducted by the unflappable and vastly experienced Michael Seal.

It deserves a larger audience than that which attended Thursday’s Final. Those of us there enjoyed performances of mainstream concertos from three gifted young musicians, playing on a bright-toned, warmly sonorous Kawai instrument. The piano manufacturers were major sponsors here, as has been the Limoges Charitable Trust for many years, and one can sense the amazing amount of goodwill surrounding the Competition. There is also the possibility of a discretionary debut CD recording prize, offered by SOMM-recordings.

First up this afternoon was the 27-year-old Welsh pianist Luke Jones, delivering a Beethoven Third Concerto with clarity and poise, occasionally phrasing with the slightest of inflections, and very much a primus inter pares with Seal’s alert orchestra (as in his rippling accompaniments to wind solos). Jones showed his true capacity to blossom when released from the orchestra in the first movement cadenza.

Winner of Birmingham’s Brant International Piano Competition earlier this year, Maxim Kinasov brought an extrovert personality and a confident rapport with conductor and orchestra to his account of Liszt’s E-flat Concerto. He found a well-rounded power in the Kawai to match Seal’s full-blooded CBSO, bursts of virtuosity alternating with full, rich sections more sustained in their articulation.

Tyler Hay concluded proceedings with Saint-Saens’ quirky G minor Concerto, which begins with searching Bachian explorations and ends with an irrepressible tarantella. His was a calm and assured stage persona after Kinasov’s extroversion, Hay’s hands judiciously balanced and always fleet in passage-work, in full command of the music’s busy textures, always delivered with composure.

Michael Seal must have experienced piquant memories conducting this, performing in the second violins when the CBSO’s  Hyperion recording of all five Saint-Saen’s concerti with Stephen Hough, Sakari Oramo conducting, won Gramophone magazine’s “Record of the Year” accolade so many years ago.

This large jury could well have taken ages in reaching its decision, but in fact was able to burn the white smoke in under 45 minutes – and for once a competition jury agreed with my own scoring: third prize went to Maxim Kinasov, second to Luke Jones, and the first prize deservedly to Tyler Hay.

An audience prize had been announced , but in the event no voting arrangements were made, so none was awarded.

Christopher Morley

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