Guildhall School Gold Medal 2016 – Antonina Suhanova, Oliver Wass, Scott MacIsaac – And the winner is…

Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor, Op.16
Harp Concerto, Op.25
Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, Op.18

Antonina Suhanova (piano)

Oliver Wass (harp)

Scott MacIsaac (piano)

Guildhall Symphony Orchestra
Adrian Leaper

Adjudicators: Pietari Inkinen, Adrian Leaper, Ian Maclay, Jonathan Vaughan (chair)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 6 May, 2016
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The Gold Medal Winner Oliver WassGuildhall SchoolPhotograph: ©C.TotmanThere was a buzz in the air. Yes, there was competition for the Guildhall School Gold Medal (an annual event alternated between singers and instrumentalists), but it was convivial, the chosen Concertos were given complete, and were very well-prepared by all concerned … and we got off to a prompt start without the inconvenience of speeches and films (they would surface at Prize-Giving time, if mercifully short, although the video was a pulsation too far).

Antonina Suhanova (from Latvia) opened the evening with Prokofiev, arguably the greatest of his five Piano Concertos, if not the one that gets played the most! As it happens I had recently heard remarkable accounts of No.2 from Daniil Trifonov and from Denis Kozhukhin. In many ways Suhanova had little to fear in comparison; her technique and confidence is assured, and she was on her mettle for the huge first-movement cadenza, although whether she went far enough with its craziness is a moot point (there was the suggestion that her left-hand is stronger than her right). And ultimately, for all her stylish musicianship, there was a feeling of sameness of colour and dynamics, of emotional containment, across the whole, for all the dexterity shown in the second movement, caprice in the third, and affection in the folksong-like episode in the Finale.

The Guildhall Symphony Orchestra and Adrian Leaper offered sumptuous and vivid support, although the bass drum shots in the third movement were, even for this full-on music, too much (and more so when we reached Rachmaninov), the instrument being ‘big’ if an ideal candidate for Verdi’s Requiem.

Next up was Oliver Wass for Alberto Ginastera’s Harp Concerto. Grumble warning: his beautiful-looking harp was amplified. I can find no licence for so doing, and I have consulted with an authority on this composer, who was amazed. To add artificial aid is to question Ginastera’s skills in writing good balance in the first place, it also denies the Barbican Hall’s its already bright and direct acoustic, and if a problem with clarity is assumed then it is up to the musicians to sort it out through their own efforts. As it was the harp was larger than life, its timbres and resonances exaggerated, the orchestra seeming to be dwarfed somewhat when heard alone having been related to the solo instrument. In short, this was got wrong.

That said, the aural spotlight being on Wass, he survived the scrutiny, for he played quite brilliantly. Alberto Ginastera (1916-83) completed his Harp Concerto in 1965, the first performance being that year in Philadelphia with Nicanor Zabaleta, Eugene Ormandy conducting. It’s an attractive, three-movement work using – note – a relatively reduced orchestra if with plentiful percussion, enough for six players. The music is colourful and rhythmic, atmospheric and lyrical, the mysterious slow movement especially spellbinding and sharing with Bartók’s ‘night music’. Wass was charismatic throughout, with a variety of touch and volume (allowing that both were enhanced) and also mood that was a perfect fit with the music, revelatory indeed, his abundant technique feeding highly developed musical gifts.

Following the second interval – and a “blue ticket” scandal seemingly needed for a short reception that made the current terrible tragedies of the World seem insignificant! – was the Rachmaninov. Well, Scott MacIsaac (from Canada) played flawlessly, but he started (the piano opens) far too loudly and left himself nowhere to go dynamically. When the orchestra entered it was too powerful (souped-up), the harp’s loudspeaker had been removed (just in case you are wondering), and throughout the performance although I could be admiring of MacIsaac’s professional traversal I found little to connect with it (and his sound could be brittle, and he had the same piano as Suhanova, and he over-pedalled at times): impressive certainly if (to me) uncommunicative: I am though going to remember Diana Sheach’s quite wonderful horn solo towards the close of the first movement.

So, after some deliberation, we were told that the Guildhall Gold Medal for 2016 was being awarded to Oliver Wass. Despite the amplification aberration, it was the correct (only) decision: he’s great!

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