sat 10/12/2016

The Leeds International Piano Competition finals, Leeds Town Hall | reviews, news & interviews

The Leeds International Piano Competition finals, Leeds Town Hall

The Leeds International Piano Competition finals, Leeds Town Hall

'The greatest piano competition in the world!' according to its founder Dame Fanny Waterman

Dame Fanny Waterman surrounded by this year's finalists. Clockwise, from top left: Andrew Tyson, Jiayan Sun, Louis Schwizgebel, Jayson Gillham, Federico Colli, Andrejs Osokins

Fans of the Leeds International Piano Competition argue that this triennial event, now in its 49th year, has done more to raise the city’s profile than any other local institution. Supporters of Leeds United would doubtless disagree, but Dame Fanny Waterman’s long-running contest has grown into an influential, internationally renowned affair. Dame Janet Baker awards the prizes. Lang Lang is now the competition’s Global Ambassador along with Honorary Ambassador Aung San Suu Kyi. Waterman, now an improbably spritely 91, is still very much in control of proceedings.

Perusing the names of winners and finalists in previous years throws up an impressive list; Murray Perahia, Andras Schiff, Mitsuko Uchida and Radu Lupu all made their names here in the Seventies. More recently, Lars Vogt, Artur Pizarro and Ashley Wass are among the more recognisable figures. Nowadays the entrants are drawn from a far wider catchment, and a flick through the programme book reveals the emerging dominance of musicians from China and the Far East; only two are British. Disappointingly, all of the finalists were male.

Whatever one’s gripes about the outcome, there’s no disputing that this is a hugely impressive, world-class event

It’s in the nature of competitions that many winners will disappear without trace, or that audiences will mutter that the wrong candidates were chosen. Last night’s prize-giving was accompanied by much underhand groaning as favoured players were ranked by Waterman’s illustrious jury in fifth and sixth place. Those of us who correctly placed the top three quietly punched our fists into the air and nodded with satisfaction as the results were announced. Whatever one’s gripes about the outcome, there’s no disputing that this is a hugely impressive, world-class event, where 68 entrants are whittled down over two weeks to a shortlist of six.

In a final spread over two nights, finalists each played a concerto accompanied by Sir Mark Elder’s Hallé. Excellent though they are, it seems a missed opportunity not to use Leeds’s own Orchestra of Opera North. Concerts in Leeds Town Hall can be bronchial, acoustically problematic events, especially in the depths of winter. There’s a rather different ambience to the LIPC finals – the audience is more ethnically, socially and chronologically diverse, and there’s barely any coughing. The sound feels less diffuse. Perhaps this is a welcome side effect of a well-heeled capacity crowd, their clothes soaking up any excess reverberation.

Federico ColliThis year’s competition was deservedly won by the Italian Federico Colli (pictured right). His exuberant, sharp-witted traversal of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto on Saturday sounded all the more impressive when compared to a rather sedate, over-polite performance of the same piece on the previous evening by the sixth-placed Australian pianist Jayson Gillham. Gillham’s reading had underwhelmed, feeling muted and pastel-shaded, accompanied by an orchestra sounding a little disengaged. Colli, shock-haired, resplendent in scarlet cravat and cummerbund with matching hankie, was a blast, offering thrillingly incisive, beautifully coloured playing, the buzz audibly seeping through to the Hallé’s players. Whether Colli’s boldness and bravura will translate into an enduring international career remains to be seen, but I’m glad he won, not least for making the least interesting Beethoven concerto sound vibrant and exciting.

Louis SchwizgebelSwiss pianist Louis Schwizgebel’s (pictured left) Friday evening account of Beethoven’s Concerto no 4 won him second place; a performance of staggering refinement and sensitivity. In a piece containing so much chamber music, Schwizgebel’s tangible rapport with an enthralled Elder was a delight.

Schwizgebel was followed by an incisive, edge-of-seat assault on Prokofiev’s satanic Concerto no 2. The young Chinese player Jiayan Sun won a deserved third prize for a performance which rightly teetered on the edge of hysteria, though never losing sight of the romantic heart beating away beneath all the violence. Sun’s case was bolstered by muscular brass and percussion playing from the Hallé.

Andrejs Osokins’s Prokofiev Concerto no 3 was a fantastic opener to the second evening. We heard some magical things – the toccata passage work in the opening movement handled so deftly that Osokins’s fingers became an improbable blur, and plenty of bittersweet pain in the build up to the concerto’s closing minutes. His was a hugely engaging platform presence, though, and he possesses an awesome left hand technique, bass lines pounding out with terrifying immediacy.

Alas, there were probably too many instances of slight imprecision and dodgy coordination to enable the jury to rank him higher. Andrew Tyson’s Rachmaninov Concerto no 3 just failed to ignite, despite many incidental pleasures. Tyson is undoubtedly a wonderfully, poised, fluent player, but he seemed just a little over polite and unruffled. The sort of musician you’d love to hear playing Mozart or Schubert, but temperamentally unsuited to depressive Slavic repertoire. His fifth placing clearly disappointed many audience members, but it was good to see him receiving an award voted for by the orchestral players. Federico Colli will give his gala recital this afternoon in the Great Hall of Leeds University. He and the other finalists will be offered a range of engagements in the coming months. The rest of us have to wait until 2015 to reflect on how the six competitors have fared, and to argue about who is the best of the new lot.

  • BBC Four broadcasts a six-part series about the 2012 Leed Piano Competition from Friday 21 September - BBC Radio 3 relay of last night's final is available on BBC iPlayer
Colli, shock-haired, resplendent in scarlet cravat and cummerbund with matching hankie, was a blast

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Comments

Louis Schwizgebel struck me as a new young musician of super quality when I heard him as a student in recital at the Verbier Festival last year - it's great to see him getting this endorsement. I'd say Graham's description of his "staggering refinement and sensitivity" is bang on.

I am staggered that Andrew Tyson was not awarded first or second place. His performances both in the semifinal (Scriabin) and in the outstanding final made him, I was sure, a front-runner. Very concerned about your adjudication.

I agree though I think he was rather let down by his Chopin which I did not warm to. It was interesting to compare all the finalists at the gala concert this afternoon. For me there was only one outstanding contribution and that was Andrejs Osokin's glorious rendition of two of Liszt paraphrases.

I enjoyed reading this detailed review but don't share your concern about the absence of females in the final...this is surely irrelevant, unless you're suggesting there's some critical bias in favour of guys?

Not going to get into adjudication stuff, but was lucky enough to be there on Friday night (1st half). I was particularly taken with Jiayan Sun playing some powerful Prokofiev. It was mesmerising. Long may the competition continue; it's fantastic having such displays of musicianship on our doorstep.

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