Leeds Piano Competition ’09

The tribulations of Leeds Pianoforte Competition are Peter Campbell’s subject of choice.

Brilliance doesn’t have to be inaccessible. The 16th Leeds International Pianoforte Competition in September brings together 68 of the world’s best young pianists for three weeks, culminating in a televised final across two nights. The music is brilliantly executed, and there is enough variety within the programmes various to cater for even the most stubborn of classical music cynics.

The standard for entry and performance is fearsomely high. Of those 68 who entered, 14 had previously won prestigious international piano competitions, and a further 26 had won prizes in similar competitions.

A place amongst the top six in the final of the competition is often enough to launch a career. In 1981 Peter Donohoe came sixth and went on to launch an extensive career, including numerous concerts here at York. Previous winners are amongst household names of famous pianists, such as Murray Perahia.

Yet, with the bar set so high, and the expectation so lofty, the music is not inaccessible. Amongst the most popular composers played throughout the competition there feature some enduringly popular and enjoyable names. Chopin, Beethoven, Bach, Debussy, Brahms, and at the piano concerto stage of course, Rachmaninov, all feature on most pianists’ repertoires.

It is no surprise that these composers, along with many others, crop up so regularly. Their music is not only enjoyable to listen to, but allows the pianists to demonstrate both their flawless ability and their immense scope to interpret a piece and fill it with emotion and personality.

During the competition the periods for which the competitors have to play ever increases, with 12 semi-finalists playing for 65-70 minutes, all from memory. Each player must publish their full programme at the start of the competition, regardless of the stage they reach, and no piece can be repeated. All stages are open to the public, with student price tickets available.

The final, during which the competitors will play a full piano concerto with the world-renowned Hallé Orchestra, is an event that attracts high publicity and tickets are hard to come by. Three finalists play on each night, and all converge the second night for the announcement of the winner.

The final takes place in Leeds Town Hall, a venue that is more like the Albert Hall than your average town meeting place. There is very much an atmosphere of dignified excitement. Sitting waiting for the evening to start, it is impossible to know what to expect. Professional recordings of pieces can only go so far to bring all the various complexities and emotions out of a world renowned piano concerto.

The young Ukrainian pianist who was on first played Beethoven’s 5th piano concerto. The first note that was struck was spellbinding, and the performance only went uphill from there. There were moments when the layers of emotion within the playing surpassed anything I had heard before. Even for a professional classical concert, this was exceptional. It was almost impossible to believe that the pianist not more than a few metres away was only 21. Alexei Gorlatch was giving the performance of his life.

The other concertos that followed were Chopin’s 1st played by Alessandro Taverna, an epic voyage of musical wizardry and tenderness which showcased the young Italian’s sheer ability, and Brahms’ 1st, a technical labyrinth that the Russian Sofya Gulyak mastered to perfection and emerged to win the competition.

With the finals and the top six recognised for their outstanding achievements in reaching the world’s most prestigious piano final, there remains one final event in the entire competition. On the Sunday of the closing weekend, there is a Gala concert. The finalists once again return to the piano to play a short selection of their favourite pieces from their competition repertoire. This event is as easily accessible as each section of the competition previous to the final, and tickets are priced at only £10.

With a range of pieces that varied from Bach through Chopin and Debussy to Shostakovich and Prokofiev, there was an appearance by almost every era of classical piano. The selections are clearly the finalists’ favourites, which shows in their performances.

The attention and energy put into the concert is certainly no less than the exceptional standard that had been displayed prior to the event. There were, once again, some musical moments of breathtaking emotion and beauty.

The competition was, and remains, truly unforgettable.

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