What went wrong at the Leeds Piano Competition

An account of the finals by Erica Worth, editor of Pianist magazine, exclusive to Slipped Disc.

Last time at ‘The Leeds’ I got it so right. I predicted that Federico Colli would win and Louis Schwizgebel would come second. There were some other great musical personalities in the finals too. It was a good year for Leeds.

Last night, my predictions couldn’t have been more wrong. I won’t tell you who I thought would win (or come second, third etc…) – that’s because had I been a judge, I don’t think I’d have awarded a First. I try to be optimistic about competitions – one has to feel compassion for these brave youngsters – but there’s no doubt about it, this year was a tricky one.

A quick review, by order of appearance: Tomoki Kitamura (24, Japan) was the first onto the stage on Friday night. He played a wishy-washy Schumann Concerto. Yes, there were some lyrical moments, his sound was pleasing, but his last movement lacked that joyfulness dance-like quality needed. It all felt a bit bland. The Schumann Concerto, though, never fares well in competitions. Something to consider next time, maybe.

Next up was Heejae Kim (25, South Korea, pictured with author), with Beethoven No 4. There were some musically mature moments scattered throughout – the opening chords spellbinding, plus seamless runs aplenty with the finest pearl-like pianissimos – even if my biggest quibble was the fact that this didn’t always feel like Beethoven. Her finest moment was the slow movement, in which her sensitive playing calmed and conquered the Hallé, as it needs to in this heart-wrenchingly intense battle between pianist and orchestra. Interesting that she won the Terrence Judd Award. That’s where the orchestra gets to vote for their favourite finalist. She had indeed conquered them!

erica with 2nd prize winner

 

Yun Wei (21, China) ended the Friday night with the powerhouse concerto that is Rachmaninov No 3. Sadly, even though this pianist is a truly natural player with beautiful sound and total understanding of phrasing, she fell apart at the seams – the final movement almost unbearable to witness. The orchestra tried to save her, but alas. Maybe a 21-year old needs to think twice before playing Rach 3 at such a competition. From what I’d heard behind the scenes, too, Wei had practically no experience playing with an orchestra. It showed. I’d like to hear her again though, so let’s hope she returns to Leeds when she’s all of 24.

Last night first on to the stage was Drew Petersen (21, USA). He played an elegant, if rather glacial, Rachmaninov No 1. The first movement fared best – there were some majestic moments, even if I was constantly wishing for more left hand power. However, his second movement – a piece of music that is so incredibly tender – lacked emotion. This pianist needs to live (and love!) some. It all ended up too cold to me.

Next up was ‘hot favourite’ Vitaly Pisarenko (28, Russian), with another Rachmaninov No 3. Using Rachmaninov’s own words when he heard Horowitz play this concerto, Pisarenko ‘swallowed it whole’. And more! In the end, it has to be about music, but this was one huge bombastic frenzy where it seemed the pianist’s main goal was to try to outrun the orchestra. It left me exhausted and rather bruised.

And so to the final finalist of the event, Anna Tcybuleva (25, Russia), who played the mighty Brahms No 2 Concerto. This work needs warmth, gravitas, a certain humility, a feeling that one has lived, not to mention a velvety rich tone and utter command over the keyboard… but sadly, for this writer, it didn’t deliver. There were some memory lapses and wrong notes too. Something must have impressed the judges, because she won.

Ask me who should have won, and I honestly cannot give you an answer. On a final note, I heard on the grapevine that there were some exceptional pianists that were thrown out in the semi final stage, some even earlier. But that’s competitions for you – and that’s why we love coming back for more!

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  • Rox says:

    I travelled up from London to hear some of the first and second rounds. I couldn’t believe how some truly exciting and exquisite interpreters with a fresh voice never made it past these two rounds, and some of the safer and more boring performances fared better. I’m a fan of the Leeds but this year I’ve been put off and I’m struggling to understand what happened. Can someone please enlighten me?

    • Nopiano says:

      I did too, Rox. I think one often finds a favourite slips through the net. The rewards are there though, eg Pisarenko’s fabulous Rachmaninov Étude Tableaux, op 39. Not broadcast but unforgettable. And the decisions are based on the whole event so reviewing the Finals alone rarely gives a balanced perspective.

      • Rox says:

        Hello,
        Alas I missed Pisarenko’s second round but I heard him in the first and thought he was fabulous and also I have seen his YouTube stuff which is equally impressive. However his lack of orchestral experience really showed up in the finals as he just butchered his way through the Rach 3 which I suspect might have slipped him into third place.

  • Rox says:

    I mean if an international distinguished jury makes collective decisions that are just not musical at their core, I’m sorry but I can’t take them seriously!

    • Marie says:

      In the end, it never comes down to a collective agreement between the twelve jurors as to who is most musical, but a simple vote which never leaves everyone happy.

  • Third Pedal says:

    Evidently they wanted to avoid the “Debargue” effect (in my opinion the only notable pianist to emerge this year).

    • Karen says:

      Its problematic when people say things like “the only”. You are free to support your own favourite pianist, but its best to refrain from words that can have an unfair and hurtful effect on the other laureates and participants from this year. Everyone has his and her own different musical tastes (and your favourite may not be mine and vice versa, etc.etc.), but to be fair to all the talented artists who have worked extremely hard to reach that exceptional level of performance, there are definitely several notable excellent artists emerging from the Tchaikovsky competition this year. We will each support and follow our own favourites hopefully without feeling the need to diminish the other laureates and participants. Thank you.

    • Olga says:

      Rude and unfair

  • john humphreys says:

    Hi Erica,

    I’ll listen to these Leeds finalists with especially keen ears now! Competitions notoriously difficult for both competitors and jury members…what are we judging?! Supreme technique of course enabling these young people to realize their musicianship unencumbered by strain but also individuality and a sense of the performance being not only a realization of a the composer’s intentions but also the performer’s personality…a gateway of sorts into the soul. So much blandness today with competitors fearful of such expression less it be deemed ‘eccentric’. More the pity. Anyway, please come to the ‘Dudley International Piano Competition’s 50th anniversary in November 2017 when (if past competitions are anything to go by) you will enjoy playing of extraordinary verve, commitment and individuality!

  • Ryor says:

    The BBC needs to resume TV coverage, pronto!

    But why did Leeds choose the date of their final night to be same as the last night of the Proms? Just didn’t make sense, no chance they’d be covering both high profile musical events simultaneously, and even less chance they’d have picked Leeds over the Proms. Leeds could have made finals nights a week later couldn’t they?

  • Grenville G says:

    I realise that Erica Worth edits a magazine devoted to the piano, but I really do wonder why she thinks she has the right to criticise young performers so viciously with comments such as “Wishy washy Schumann”?

    Of course, I’ve never heard Ms Worth play. Maybe she’s fabulous. And maybe she’s had a truly magnificent international performing career – albeit one which just happens to have passed me by.
    But I suspect that like most (all?) critics she actually couldn’t play for 5 minutes as well as any of the people she thinks she has the right to disparage so publicly.

    Erica – when the time comes that you’re both capable enough and brave enough to walk on stage with a conductor of the stature of Mark Elder and an orchestra such as the Halle in front of 1500 people in Leeds Town Hall (not to mention the radio microphones and TV cameras) – and perform the Schumann concerto or Brahms 2 or Rachmaninov 3 then maybe your views will be worth listening to.

    Until then you could show some humility and also some admiration for these terrific players.

    • Furzwängler says:

      So by your own logic you believe that no one should be a theatre critic unless he/she can act like Olivier, Gielgud or Richardson, and no one should be an art critic unless he/she can paint like Goya, Manet or Turner?

      • Theatre? says:

        The thing with theatre, is that there is more to it than acting. In the end, theatre is for the audience; any audience member can be a critic, but one shouldn’t be taken as seriously as, say Olivier, if they haven’t led a life in the theatre.

      • Peter Alsop says:

        Furzwangler,
        In answer to your question: I do find that commentaries are far more interesting when the commentator is or has been at the top of the field that they comment on. Be this music, theatre, sport, politics, business, education, science or many others. Those that “have been there” see things in a way that the rest of us don’t, and many of them can express their observations with a clarity that you do not otherwise get (and I’m not talking about ghost-written autobiographies). But in many cases, the greats really don’t have the time or inclination to stoop to being a mere critic. So the playing field is rather open to those of us that can talk better than we can do. And some make a pretty good job of that too.

  • Paul says:

    Worth’s description of a performance of the Schumann concerto as “wishy washy” is hardly vicious.

    • Beckmesser says:

      And I agree with her that the Schumann (one of my favorite concertos) is just not a great contest piece when facing the inevitable Rachmaninoffs and Prokofievs.

  • Songfest says:

    What went wrong at the Leeds Piano Competition??? Let’s start with the jury: Not ONE great pianist!! Just a group of faded contest winners whose careers tapered off years ago: some wannabe’s who never were, a bunch of piano teachers, some chamber-music players, a ballet-youth orchestra conductor, and a manager from CAMI. Now, please tell me – why on earth would they put a manager on jury??? Having spent many years in the classical music industry (and having been one of the very few to be musically educated), I can tell you that the musical knowledge of most artist-managers is skimpy at best. This was not a Jury worthy of the Leeds competition: the answer to the question heading this article is clearly “THE JURY”.

    • Nopiano says:

      I think that’s a bit harsh on the likes of Messrs Demidenko, Devoyon, and Ms Queffelec. The others are not exactly slouches musically, either.
      The snag is we never get all those who moved us the most – or whatever criterion you use – passing to the next round. But at least 4 of the 6 finalists were very good, at least in recital. [i heard everyone in Stage 2]
      Sadly the finals at Leeds, and elsewhere, can be an anti-climax because the candidates lack orchestral experience. Some don’t even expect to get to the final, or never played their concerto with an orchestra before.
      It was also the year of the Tchaikovsky (a few weeks ago) and the Chopin (soon) which has removed several potential winners.

    • Befuddled says:

      I’m confused as to why you would believe a manager, whose job is to be able to pick out talented musicians and actually contribute to their career, would be a poor choice to be on a jury? The put their time and money on their ability to choose a talented pianist who they believe would be successful. The Leeds prides itself of advancing pianists who they believe actually have a chance of making an international career, and under that pretense, I agree with the decision to put a manager on the jury.

      P.S. I’m positive you’re not the only musically educated person in the classical music industry 🙂

      • Dijon says:

        I have been involved in the classical music industry for decades and I can assure you that VERY few managers know what they are listening to. In fact very few people know good piano playing – mainly pianists themselves and some specialist critics (like Erica here). That is the reason why MANY good pianists never have a decent career – because only audiences and critics like them, but they don’t get taken seriously as they don’t have a manager and promoters, who are influenced by managers, do not know what they are listening to. All managers spot is stage presence, attractiveness and an ability to convince them they know what they are doing….ie they are saleable. FYI most of the good pianists get knocked out in the first rounds, as Jury members are political, just like any other committee, and invariably influenced by own personal interests…. basically competitions are just PR exercises for the piano industry, nothing more. Much like magazine and media award ceremonies, it has nothing to do with who wins, its just PR.

  • Graeme Kay says:

    FYI for those who were not present, all of the semi-final performances are available exclusively on the Radio 3 website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio3

  • Hhtsai says:

    Well done, honest Erica, for saying it as it was. The concerto finals were flawed. There were nerves and fluffed notes, and wrong choices. There are many fine pianists in the mix and perhaps one or two will make it to the big time but perhaps not this lot. Commercial success these days may depend less on competitions but other media like YouTube likes! I am amazed at the lack of a decent pianist in the jury. Peter Donohue was doing bbc commentary for radio 3 ! I suspect the final choice may be done by a manager/promoter, on commercial grounds, not musical ones.

    • John E Varley says:

      Believe me, one of the jury was an international performer, teacher and Beethoven scholar who, “could even teach Beethoven a thing or two” (Irish Times).

  • Sally says:

    Mr or Ms Greenville,
    The argument you present to defend the Leeds competition is to run down someone that you feel has misrepresented the competition. i.e. ad hominem – (of an argument or reaction) directed against a person rather than the position they are maintaining.

    What is your position? State your reasons for defending that position and forget about personally attacking someone who may have a different opinion and who, in my opinion, has stated her position well.

  • Leo says:

    Competition standards go up and down so it’s a bit odd if people think that a competition should get better as the years go on.

  • Jonathan M. Dunsby says:

    ==The Schumann Concerto, though, never fares well in competitions.

    Mitsuku Uchida came second (in late 70s) with a stunningly wonderful Schumann

  • John Batten says:

    I was at the Friday and Saturday Finals myself and broadly speaking agree with the gist of what I sense Erica is saying. The ‘long line’ that should seamlessly meld component parts into a coherent whole seems to have gone out of fashion these days – though my spirits rose when Yun Wei’s musicianship showed that she understood this even if things went wrong technically. I too hope she comes back next time – I would love to hear her again in different circumstances and in different works. (Why do we always get so much Rachmaninov? It’s not as if it’s the greatest music by a long chalk yet it occupied 50% of the Finals. Schnabel said of Mozart, who didn’t feature – ‘too easy for children, too difficult for adults’ and maybe that says something).

    Competitions are unsatisfactory mechanisms – you can’t really distribute marks between a Monet and a van Gogh. You can only judge musical ones on musicianship, which is not the same thing as virtuosity. Also we weren’t privy to the Finalists’ previous rounds which the jury presumably have to take into account and so we are not in possession of all the information, which may partly explain the final pecking order.

    During the announcements and the tributes to the wonderful Dame Fanny there were references to changes that would have to come, and it will be interesting to see what form these may take.

    Anyway we should salute all the brave competitors…

  • John Batten says:

    I was also at the Friday and Saturday Finals myself and broadly speaking agree with the gist of what I sense Erica is saying. The ‘long line’ that should seamlessly meld component parts into a coherent whole seems to have gone out of fashion these days – though my spirits rose when Yun Wei’s musicianship showed that she understood this even if things went wrong technically. I too hope she comes back next time – I’d like to hear her again in different circumstances and in different works. (Why do we always get so much Rachmaninov? It’s not as if it’s the greatest music by a long chalk yet it occupied 50% of the Finals. Schnabel said of Mozart, who didn’t feature – ‘too easy for children, too difficult for adults’ and maybe that says something).

    Competitions are unsatisfactory mechanisms – you can’t really distribute marks between a Monet and a van Gogh. You can only judge musical ones on musicianship, which is not the same thing as virtuosity. Also we weren’t privy to the Finalists’ previous rounds which the jury presumably have to take into account and so we are not in possession of all the information, which may partly explain the final pecking order.

    During the announcements and the tributes to the wonderful Dame Fanny there were references to changes that would have to come, and it will be interesting to see what form these may take.

    Anyway we should salute all the brave competitors…

  • RODNEY GREENBERG says:

    The Schumann concerto never fares well? Maybe not these days, but those with long memories will recall how, at the very first Leeds in 1963, Michael Roll was able to carry off First Prize with it. It became something of a signature concerto in his subsequent career. That year, the only other available concertos in the list were three by Mozart, the last three by Beethoven, the two by Liszt, and Tchaikovsky’s No.1. Bach, Chopin, Brahms, Grieg, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev and Bartok were only added gradually over the years.

    • christopher storey says:

      I despise myself , each time, for going to the Leeds competition, because I regard music as an inherently uncompetitive activity. Part of the trouble is that showmanship seems to trump musicality . There were, for me, in the earlier stages, two quite outstandingly musical pianists , Zhou from China, and Ashley Fripp from the UK , who were the finest pianists I have heard on decades. Yet Zhou did not make the semi-finals, and Fripp was not selected for the finals . Also, the eventual winner, Anna Tcybulova, in the earlier rounds was a neat and tidy pianist but, if I am brutally truthful , one whose playing was utterly devoid of character . It’s a shame

  • Dave Pugh says:

    Agree with most of the comments in this article except w.r.t. Anna T which are way off the mark. Anna T fully deserved her first place. Her performance was remarkable, impassioned, sincere, very powerful where needed, especially poetic in the 3rd movement. She had no memory lapses whatsoever. There was the odd wrong note but that is hardly unusual in a performance of Brahms PC2.

    The memory lapses were in Yun Wei’s performance of Rach 3 (in all three movements). I think the final placings were spot on.

  • Frazer Palmer says:

    The playing of the Russian was moving. Mistakes don’ t marr the emotions which arise in such a beautiful pianist wholly committed to playing in memory of the early death of her month and the pianist’s younger brother.
    I cannot stop replaying the recording. It is like the feeling one has at Mass!
    For me, a rough and ready home pianist who managed to pass Grade Five, and stand-by church organist Music is sublime – of God!

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