What went wrong at the Leeds Piano Competitionmain
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!
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!