United Kingdom 2017 Brant International Piano Competition Final: Andrey Ivanov, Ryan Drucker, Gen Li (piano), Birmingham Town Hall, 1.7.2017. (CS)
Beethoven – Bagatelles, Op.119 Nos.1 & 2
Brahms – Intermezzo in E major Op.116 No.4
Schumann – Fantasie in C major Op.17
Scarlatti – Sonata in C sharp minor K.247
Janáček – Sonata 1. X. 1905: I. Predtucha (Foreboding), II. Smrt (Death) Brahms – Sonata No.2 in F sharp minor Op.2
Debussy – Images Book II: Cloches à travers les feuilles (Bells through the leaves), Et la lune descend sure le temple qui fut (And the moon descends upon the temple that used to be), Poissons d’or (Goldfish)
Liszt – ‘Au lac de Wallenstadt’ (At Lake Wallenstadt) from Années de Pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage)
Prokofiev – Sonata No.7 in B flat major Op.83
It’s hard enough for musicians to be pitted against one another in the competition bull-ring, but even worse when they are forced to tussle with noise pollution from outside the performance venue. This was the scenario during this year’s Brant International Piano Competition where the second of three competitors, Belgian-born Ryan Drucker, found his performances of Janáček and Brahms doing battle with a cacophony which sounded like thunderous vengeance from the heavens, or the entry of the sixteen timpani, two bass drums, and four tam-tams in the Dies irae of Berlioz’ Grande messes des morts, but which was in fact emanating from the live stage at the food festival in the square outside Birmingham Town Hall.
This dissonance was not the only potential distraction either. As Chairman of the Brant Trustees, Colin Timms, explained in his introductory welcome, it had been decided that for the first time the competitors would perform in the round on the flat floor of the Town Hall. This certainly made for an intimate performance, but with the audience seated just a few feet from the performers it initially felt a little intrusive as patrons jostled for positions that would give them the ‘best view’ of the performers’ handiwork. In the event, the audience were extremely respectful; for once, I discerned scarcely a shuffle or sniff. Others adopted a more distant vantage point, but the placement of the piano meant that sightlines were poor – and surely, we want to both hear and see musicians play in a live performance? – as I discovered in the second half, when I moved to the rear of the Hall and found that, in addition, the over-hang from the balcony muffled the resonance and tone quality.
Still, such matters are personal preferences, and the patrons in the Hall seemed more than satisfied; and, pleased that – another ‘first’ – they had the opportunity to vote for the Audience Prize of £500, donated by the Alan Woodfield Charitable Trust. The Brant International Competition itself was founded by Gladys Lily Brant in 1979 in memory of her parents, Robert William and Florence Amy Brant. Born in 1915, she ran the competition in her late eighties and then handed administration to the Town Hall Symphony Hall, which runs it in association with the trustees of the Brant charity.
Miss Brant was a passionate music lover – she recalled attending a performance by Rachmaninov at the Town Hall, in her youth – and her musical knowledge shaped the structure of the competition. In the first round, pianists are required to perform either a Prelude and Fugue from The Well-Tempered Clavier or a sonata by Domenico Scarlatti, and play a study selected from the oeuvre of Chopin, Debussy, Liszt, Rachmaninov or Scriabin. A Beethoven sonata must form part of the second-round programme alongside a piece written since 1960. In the final round, the competitors perform three works of their own choice and, as always, it’s interesting to reflect on the programmes that they devise and to imagine their motivation and intent.
Andrey Ivanov plumped for restraint and eloquence. The two Op.119 Bagatelles by Beethoven with which the 27-year-old pianist from Belarus opened his programme were characterised by a gentle touch and sensitive engagement between left and right hands. Each of the slight miniatures had a coherent structure and poetic focus. Ivanov’s delicate rendition of Brahms’ E major Intermezzo Op.116 No.4 made clear what Schoenberg meant when he described the composer as ‘Brahms: the Progressive’. The deep undercurrents that disturb the limpid surface were intelligently probed, the modest scale and sparse transparency being shown to belie the intensity of Brahms’ expression. Ivanov rhapsodised articulately, creating fluent cascades of great delicacy.
Schumann’s C major Fantasie Op.17 presented greater challenges and while there was profound introspection and controlled, powerful pianism, Ivanov did not convincingly bring the various parts, which fluctuate tempestuously in spirit and texture, into a coherent whole. The dotted rhythms of the grandiose middle movement did seem sprung with anxiety, though, while the gently sighed motifs of the slow final movement quivered with lyrical restraint yet intimated anguish.
Drucker made the opening work of his programme, the Allegro of Domenico Scarlatti’s Sonata in C sharp minor K.247, seem both ‘modern’ and mercurial, gradually allowing the confidence inherent in the musical material to blossom warmly. The fleeting descending motif breathed through the sonata like a will o’ the wisp, while the trills were gracefully shaped, effectively resolving the recurring syncopation in the melodic line. The two movements which Drucker performed from Janáček’s Sonata 1. X. 1905 had a tense theatricality; Drucker displayed a natural feeling for the asymmetrical phrasing and fragmented discourse, as well as capturing the yearning quality of the music. The pedalling at the opening of Smrt (Death) was particularly effective. Inevitably, while one hopes that the young pianist, rapt in the music, was impervious to the external din, for the audience the tense silences of the music were inevitably disturbed, the spell which Drucker worked so hard and so effectively to conjure, broken.
Brahms’ Second Piano Sonata needed a little more power for the sheer scale of the work to make its mark, though Drucker skilfully negotiated the tricky angular octaves with which the first movement opens, and clearly recognised the breadth of the composer’s invention. The third movement, Scherzo: Allegro, was especially well crafted, the rhythmic contrast between the taut call-and-response phrase structure of the Scherzo and the more expansive fluency of the Trio brilliantly handled.
The final competitor was Chinese-born Gen Li, who chose Debussy’s pictorial Images to begin his programme. The bell-like resonances of the opening Cloches à travers les feuilles were wonderfully even in weight, as the notes of the scale merged like the defusing colours of a water-colour painting, gradually deepening and enrichening. Li seemed to find darker tones at the lower end of the piano than his fellow competitors, while the right hand produced a transparent dappling of light and echoes. Throughout these impressionistic vignettes Li conveyed the strong sense of movement which Debussy’s harmonies and textures instigate and propel. This was particularly noticeable in Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut in which the focused chordal progression was countered by a singing line of single-voiced melody, the gravity of the former juxtaposed with the focus lucidity of the latter. Liszt’s ‘Au lac de Wallendstadt’ from Années de Pèlerinage followed and one marvelled at the serenity of the circling motif which conveys the still waters as the sunlight reflects of the gently swelling waves
Sadly, I was unable to stay for Li’s final piece, Prokofiev’s fiendish Seventh Piano Sonata. It was scheduled to last 17 minutes, but as the competition was running approximately 20 minutes behind schedule, it was only a rapid dash that got me to the Birmingham Hippodrome in time for curtain-up on WNO’s production of Der Rosenkavalier. Li, the sole performer in the second half, seemed to be playing to a slightly reduced audience from the start; arriving at the Hippodrome I espied several patrons whom I’d seen among the audience during the first-half of the competition and who had evidently preferred a less breathless sprint to the opera.
The three judges were Russian pianist Nelly Akopian Tamarina, Richard Hawley (since 2012, Head of Artistic Programming for THSH) and pianist, musicologist and broadcaster Bryce Morrison. After deliberation, they awarded Ryan Drucker and Gen Li joint First Prize, while Gen Li also won the Audience Prize – proving that true musicianship can overcome adverse circumstances!
Bartók once declared that competitions are for horses, but this seemed a warm, supportive occasion in which the competitors appeared simultaneously relaxed and immersed in their chosen programmes, and the audience were courteous and appreciative. I have no doubt that we will be seeing more of all three talented musicians in the future.