Leeds comes to London
Leeds comes to London with three Wigmore lunchtime concerts of past winners of the Leeds International Piano Competition :Lars Vogt (1990), Sunwook Kim(2006) and Alessio Bax(2000)
A refreshing air of change for the Leeds International Piano Competition.
Dame Fanny Waterman that fearless and intrepid doctors wife who decided over 50 years ago that her home city of Leeds should be put on the musical map.
Together with Marion Stein the Countess of Harewood they instigated and ran almost single-handedly the very first competition in 1963.
Benjamin Britten provided the set piece: a wonderfully evocative Notturno.
Musical values were to be upheld and were the very core of this competition .
As Dame Fanny would say in her very down to earth manner: “People do not mould any more”- and how right she is!
With the chairman Sir Arthur Bliss and his jury of great musicians who were happy to join Dame Fanny in her adventure. Hans Keller,Geza Anda,Badura Skoda,Jacob Flier,Yvonne Lefebure ,Nikita Magaloff,John Pritchard were some of the prestigious names that voted Michael Roll,a student of Dame Fanny,the winner. Vladimir Krainiev came in second.
Ileana Ghione with Dmitri Alexeev Craig Sheppard with Murray Perahia
A competition is only as good as its competitors as Dame Fanny would famously say and her dream has come true and the competition has gone from strength to strength thanks to Rafael Orozco,Radu Lupu,Murray Perahia ,Dmitri Alexeev going on to win the first competitions with world famous names like Mitsuko Uchida ,Victoria Postnikova and Andras Schiff gaining their first International recognition.
Now Dame Fanny in her 97th year has become Life President Founder and Director Emeritus and leaves the day to day running to Paul Lewis and Adam Gatehouse.
With Paul Lewis ,one of the finest musicians this country has produced, and the organisational and administrative skills of Adam Gatehouse by his side they will be ensuring that the values on which it was born will endure .
Values that have made of the Leeds one of the most highly esteemed competitions in a market that is now saturated by competitions of all sorts!
And so it was refreshing with this announced wind of change to see that the first round of the competition was given in three different countries with heats in Berlin,Singapore and New York .
Giving the opportunity to many more applicants to be heard before arriving in Leeds for the actual competition in September.
Twenty four pianists have been selected and will arrive in Dame Fanny’s beloved Leeds in September.
The whole competition will be streamed this time and broadcast live.
An innovation for the competition that will give us all an opportunity to hear every performer and not just the few top prize winners.
I believe the heats too will be available from late August in an attempt to give a platform to many of the enormously talented young musicians,more than at any previous time I would imagine.
If some of the individual talents do not have yet all the facets necessary to start an international career, which is what the few top prizes would imply, it will allow their talent and potential to be spotted and helped from an early stage.
And now the Leeds has come home in preparation for the Festival in September.
A piano Festival in London and Leeds with three of the previous prize winners .
A beautiful new brochure and concerts alternating between the Howard Assembly Room in Leeds and the Wigmore Hall in London.
Lars Vogt (1990),Sunwook Kim (2006) and Alessio Bax(2000) and also three young scholars from the Lang Lang International Music Foundation .
Lang Lang who calls Dame Fanny his piano “mummy” and like Dame Fanny has done so much to promote and help young talent .
He is in fact described as the Global Ambassador for the Leeds.
In his own words:”She shares my passion for nurturing young talent and reaching out to encourage kids to engage in music”.
The Honorary Patron Murray Perahia was one of the first winners of the Leeds and one of the most distinguished musicians of our time .
In his own words:” Leeds gave me undreamt of opportunities that I am forever grateful for,not only important concerts but also the chance of meeting leading musicians and people I much admired”.
And so I was very pleased this week to be in London able to hear two of these concerts with Alessio Bax and Sunwook Kim.
Of course there are teething problems and the problem with marketing is that essential information is sometimes left out at the expense of selling a super product.
This magnificent programme is a case in point with many inaccuracies and essential details missing about where and with whom these artist have received their first education.
Of course there are lists of their engagements past and present in the most prestigious world venues with famous orchestras and conductors.
What really interests us on the threshold of such a prestigious competition is where did they receive their own early training that was obviously so crucial for their future development.
Some silly mistakes that never would have passed the eagle eye of Dame Fanny had concerts listed in the Wigmore that in fact will take place in Leeds.
However some really enlightened programme notes by Katy Hamilton more than made up for these silly errors.
Sunwook Kim the youngest winner of the Leeds in 2006 and the only Asian to have won it too.
Now only 30 having received his early training from that magician Daejin Kim at the University of Seoul in South Korea.(I had heard about him and his remarkable students at the Busoni Competition where his student Chloe Mun was the winner in 2015)
I learn (from Google n.b.) that he has lived in London and after his success in Leeds and at the Clara Haskil Competition he studied for an MA in conducting at the Royal Academy in London in 2013.
Many recordings and prestigious concerts to his name and still only 30 this year.
A programme of the three “B’s” Bach,Beethoven and Beethoven very much in line with Dame Fanny’s ideals of starting with the classics.
I remember a few year ago in Oxford at Marios Papadopoulos’s Piano Festival introducing tongue in cheek to Dame Fanny the future winner of the Leeds Competition. She was immediately intrigued and whisked this young Russian pianist off to a room. “Play me something classical” she said .
He played the Beethoven Pathetique to her.
She listened to every note more intently than anyone I know with the sole exception of Menahem Pressler.
The young man did in fact become a top prize winner in the competition the following year!
So it was very interesting to find the Pathetique in the programme for this first Leeds Festival.
Some exemplary playing of course but also a lack of rhythmic tension in the opening Grave that I am sure Dame Fanny would have put right.
It made for some rather fragmented playing in which the contrasts between forte,fortissimo and piano were rather exaggerated and did not allow for the natural flow.
Some rather individual liberties with the tempo too whilst giving a refreshing youthful feel to this well known classic lost some of the power that this work should have.
It was apparent from the first passionately played notes of the great Busoni transcription of Bach’s Toccata,Adagio and Fugue in C major BWV 564.
Unfairly it immediately came to mind that this is a typical youthful winner on the competition circuit.
Overpowering forte opening statement came like an electric shock as it had also in certain of the Brahms Handel Variations.
Some beautiful playing in the Adagio made one realise that here was a real master.
But again it seemed as though they were fragments not entirely envisaged as a whole.
Superbly assured playing of the Fugue with some really transcendentally accomplished feats of piano playing and also wonderful layers of colour.
One just wished that it could have been envisaged more as a whole as obviously Bach and Busoni had intended.
The Brahms Handel Variations showed off some wonderful colouring and trascendental piano playing but I found that the search for something new in the repeat of every variation was rather irritating because it did not allow for the continual forward movement of the whole work to its inexorable climax and mighty fugue.
This was a young man’s Brahms lacking in the grandeur of Arrau or the introspection of a Lupu or the supreme intelligence of a Perahia .
It reminded me of the superb youthful passion of Rafael Orozco and his playing of Brahms op 5 Sonata or his prizewinning performance of the D minor Concerto.
He swept the board with his youthful passion and brilliance much as this young man obviously did 12 years ago in Leeds.
Annie Fischer who was on that second jury asked me about him when she came to Rome where he lived. She had never forgotten the excitement and the battle between him and Victoria Postnikova in Leeds.
He died much too early and is much missed.
Sunwook Kim is obviously gaining in maturity and experience and his onward musical journey is a very exciting prospect. His beautiful encore of a passionately played Intermezzo in A major was a gentle reminder of what we have in store from this young man.
Alessio Bax I have only heard in a remarkable recital on the radio recently.
I am very happy to hear him live at last.
Always a good sign when John and Noretta Conci-Leech are in the audience.
It was Alessio who the Keyboard Trust befriended and helped before going on to be recognised in Leeds.
Noretta had told me about his mentor Joaquin Achucarro ( the first person I heard play at the RFH when I was a child in Rachmaninov 2nd Piano Concerto with Charles Mackerras ) whom he met in Siena and in 1994 transferred to Texas to study with him .
Referring again to Google I learn that Alessio was the youngest person to graduate with honours from his home Conservatory in Bari at only 14.
Studying with Angela Montemurro and later with Francois Joel Thiollier in France.
At only 19 he won the Hamamatsu International Piano Competition .
In 2000 he won the Leeds and now lives in New York with his wife Lucille Chung with whom he has a piano duo.
He also has a blog “Have piano,will travel” talking about music and food!
He is now also artistic director of Antonio Lysy’s Festival in Tonino’s grandmothers’ house in the Val D’Orcia :”In Terra di Siena”.
Dame Iris Origo writes famously about La Foce in her book “The War in Val D’Orcia.”
Tonino was a schoolboy in Rome,the son of Alberto Lysy the violinist,and we played together many times in my theatre and also in Villa Volkonsky for the newly wed Prince Charles and Diana.
Charles had been a cellist and many composers had written pieces for his studies which the enlightened arts officer of the British Council,Jack Buckley, thought would be nice to hear on that occasion!
Rehearsing in Tonino’s family home in the centre of Rome I parked my car in the drive only to find a rather irate note from Dame Iris saying my tyres would be punctured if I did that again!
I had no idea at the time that his grandmother was the woman whom I had admired from a distance for so long via her memorable books.
To find that note was indeed an honour!
The same beautiful playing that I had heard on the radio .
The Adagio from the Oboe Concerto by Marcello in Bach’s transcription was memorable for the beauty of the melody and the perfect sense of balance.
The outer movements had the same liquid sound and maybe in the over resonant Wigmore Hall could have had some of Sunwook Kims clean crisp clarity.
A musicianly sense of style and shape that made one understand where Busoni got his inspiration for transcriptions from .
As Katy Hamilton quotes in her excellent programme notes:” by cleansing them of the dust of tradition…attempt to make them young,the way they were at the moment when they emerged from the head and pen of the composer”.
In fact in Alessio’s hands the spirit and joie de vivre allowed this music to bubble over and was indeed an infectious opening work.
By the time of the Rachmaninov Corelli Variations Alessio had judged perfectly the complex acoustic that Pletnev describes as “playing unter ze vater”.
Again quoting Katy Hamilton who informs us that this work was not on a theme by Corelli at all but on a Portuguese dance melody known simply as La Folia .
Rachmaninov had been recording with Fritz Kreisler in 1928 Corelli’s own variations on this theme – hence the confusion.
Rachmaninov’s work is dedicated to Kreisler.
Some truly magical sounds and sense of character . A sumptuous full piano sound and a superb use of the pedals allowed us to appreciate this work put together by Rachmaninov in only three weeks whilst on holiday in France.
The simple theme returning after such transformations as if in a dream on a cloud of sound that in Alessio’s magical hands was opium for the ears.
The Quaderno musicale di Annalibera by his compatriot Luigi Dallapiccola allowed us to appreciate his enormous range of sound as he picked his way through this prickly complex score.
The Dante Sonata by Liszt was given a truly monumentally fearless performance showing off both his supreme virtuosity combined with a poetic sensitivity that made one realise why he had won the Leeds in 2000.
A Prelude for the Left Hand by Scriabin was his way of thanking the small but very appreciative audience at the Wigmore Hall this lunchtime.