Rhinegold Publishing

Issue: November/December 2015

Youthful Promise: Leeds International Piano Competition

11:52, 26th November 2015

It was a historic year for the Leeds International Piano Competition – but not for the reasons you might expect. Murray Mclachlan reports on a field of young participants who showed potential rather than accomplishment


Murray Mclachlan

The 2015 Leeds International Piano Competition will be remembered as a historic occasion, not because of its exceptional levels of artistry, but because it was 95-year-old Dame Fanny Waterman’s swansong as indefatigable, often outspoken chair and artistic director. Dame Fanny, by her own admission known as ‘Field Marshall Fanny’, helped to found the competition in 1963 and remained its guiding lights for more than half a century.

There were some excellent solo performances throughout the earlier round of this, the 18th triennial Competition, which attracted strong entries from hundreds of pianists internationally. However, having listened to the six young finalists perform concertos with Halle under Sir Mark Elder in Leeds Town Hall, I was left with the impression that overall there was more promise and potential on display than fully formed musicianship.

This was immediately evident in the first finalist, Tomoki Kitamura (aged 24, from Japan) who gave a creditable rendering of Shumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor. True, there were some ravishing poetic moments in the first movement, but the cadenza and much of the finale were playing with a sense of literal fluency rather than poetic exploration. At times there were issues with the ensemble, but certainly this is a pianist with facility, and plenty of promise for the future.

In contrast, Heejae Kim (28, South Korea) seemed much more energised and experienced as a concerto player. Early on in the competition, she had stamped real authority and vision into a blistering account of Liszt’s Fantasy and Fugue on BACH. Kim’s approach to Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto was assured, fluent and articulate in the outer movements, while the second movement showed conviction and control: there was a real sense of presence in this movement’s solo passages. Perhaps her literal approach to accents and sforzandi in the first movement could be questioned, and the finale needed at least a little more energy and sparkle, but overall this was extremely assured interpretation.

The third finalist Yun Wei (21, China), tackled exceptionally demanding repertoire throughout the competition, including works such as Beethoven’s Hammerskkavier and Ravel’s Gaspard, and continued this approach in the concerto round by opting for Rachmaninov’s Third. Though still very young, she is already a promising young artist with lots of ideas and flair (in particular there were some exquisite voicings in the chordal passages of the first movement’s cadenza). However, she did not have the happiest of evenings in her concerto performance at Leeds: clearly she was exhausted by the end of the finale. As the piece progressed so too did the number of slips, stumbles and ultimately memory lapses too. ‘Rach Three’ is a monster piece, but there is no doubting the potential of this brave 21 year old, who could well blossom into an exciting talent given a little more concerto exposure and experience.

Fourth up was another 21 year old, Drew Petersen (USA), who gave an articulate and flowing account of Rachmaninov’s first Concerto. His idiomatic pianism was agreeable and highly accomplished, though ensemble was not quite watertight in the finale. Perhaps he still needs to develop his projection of line and phrasing, something especially apparent in the slow movement and first movement cadenza. Earlier in the Competition, Petersen had shown strong attributes in 20th-century repertoire, excelling in the Carter’s Sonata in the semi-finals and the Barber Sonata in round two.

The second Rachmaninov Third of the Competition came from vastly experienced Vitaly Psarenko (28, Russia), who brought commanding projection, energy and drive in a fearless account of the work. The orchestra was left behind a little at times, and overall, there was a need for greater structural cohesion and flow between sections (The first movement in particular seemed too abruptly corseted, with sudden shifts of tempo between sections). During the semi-final Pisarenko was extremely impressive in the test piece, Britten’s Notturno (originally commissioned for the first Leeds Competition in 1963) and his delivery of the Rachmaninov Etudes-Tableaux, Op 39 was definitely a highlight of the Competition: a name to watch.

Finally, a real rarity in an international piano competition: Brahms’ Second Concerto, performed by Anna Tcybuleva (25, Russia). Like Pisarenko, she is a born performer. Although her account of this monumental, majestic masterpiece perhaps lacked gravitas, there was no doubt that she was thoroughly enjoying every minute. The work was taken by the scruff of the neck and executed with energetic elan, bravura and heart-on-sleeve communication. Wrong notes and lapses of concentration can be forgiven, especially under such stressful circumstances as  a competition, and overall Tcybuleva showed sufficient conviction to warrant the jury’s final decision of awarding her the first prize. Certainly those who heard her spellbinding, exquisite sounds in Debussy’s Preludes during the semi-final could not fail to be moved by her unquestionable qualities as an artist.

Second prize was given to Heejae Kim, who aalso won the Terence Judd Award (voted for by members of the orchestra). The other placings were Vitaly Psarenko (3rd prize), Drew Peterseon (4th), Tomoki Kitamura (5th) and Yun Wei (6th).

Shortly before this year’s Leeds, Paul Lewis and Adam Gatehouse were named as the Competition’s joint artistic directors to succeed Dame Fanny Waterman. It will be fascinating to see how the event develops under their leadership: Lewis is one of the most respected performers on the international stage today, while Gatehouse brings tremendous experience not only as a jury member at Leeds (in 2012 and 2015) but also through his significant contribution to BBC Radio 3, where as a senior editor he founded the BBC New Generation Artists scheme.


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