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Leeds International Piano Competition Finals, Leeds Town Hall review - a hi-tech, low carbon musical celebration | reviews, news & interviews

Leeds International Piano Competition Finals, Leeds Town Hall review - a hi-tech, low carbon musical celebration

Leeds International Piano Competition Finals, Leeds Town Hall review - a hi-tech, low carbon musical celebration

Upbeat close to one of the UK's great musical events

Bold and big-hearted: Alim Beisembayev plays Rachmaninov, with Andrew Manze conducting

It’s easy to forget that what you see in a competition final isn’t always the full story, the jury members’ votes in this case based on what had gone on in the earlier rounds.

The 20th Leeds International Piano Competition began its final stages in the city two weeks ago, the 63 competitors in the first round filmed earlier this year in 17 separate locations across the globe, the films streamed via Vimeo to the UK. 27 pianists were selected to come to Leeds, and it’s interesting to learn that this process, unimaginable a decade ago, was reportedly less stressful to all concerned and resulted in a hugely reduced carbon footprint.

Five concertos spread over two nights was an embarrassment of riches, and attending just the finals as a listener means that you can’t help ranking, rather guiltily, each pianist’s performance based on how much you know and/or like the work they’re playing. That’s why we have professional juries comprised of experts, folks. Finalists play in alphabetical order, so you feel for the opening act on the Friday night. He was the Ukrainian Dmytro Choni, a 28 year old international competition veteran whose account of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto was elegant and poised, the concerto’s gruffer edges smoothed over. Choni’s lyrical delivery of the first movement’s second theme was distinctive, and the finale’s shift to C major was well-judged.

But there wasn’t much sense of communion between Choni and Andrew Manze’s lithe and responsive Royal Liverpool Philharmonic – something which was much more evident in the young British pianist Thomas Kelly’s account of the same composer's Fourth Concerto, the first evening’s final work. Kelly’s poised, cool opening was striking, giving no hint of how energised and involving the performance soon became. BeisembayevManze’s string recitatives in the slow movement were stark and jagged, Kelly’s calm response appealing. Surely he’d be a winner? As it happened, no; Kelly came fifth, with Choni fourth, but his warm, affable style of music-making makes him someone I’m keen to hear again soon. The first prize went to Alim Beisembayev (pictured above) from Kazakhstan, whose electrifying, exhilarating take on Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini was one of the most exciting things I’ve witnessed live. Beisembayev stressed the piece’s brittle modernity, his sharp, incisive playing nicely matched by the RLPO’s winds and brass. The boldness, the bigness of his sound filled the hall, Beisembayev’s account of the 18th variation both commanding and warmly lyrical. He’s the real thing; that he also won the Audience Award and that for Best Contemporary Performance reinforces the rightness of the jury’s decision.

Still, my favourite performance came at the start of the second evening, when silver medallist Kaito Kobayashi (pictured below receiving his award) gave us Bartok’s valedictory Third Concerto. That Kobayashi hadn’t performed the work with an orchestra before might have given his reading extra edge and bite in the more extrovert passages. The second movement’s soft chords were heart-stopping, the ensuing bird and insect calls uniquely vivid. Bartók's finale danced, Kobayashi’s dexterity matched by some splendid timpani and percussion work.LEeds second prize winner Brahms’s Second Concerto shouldn’t have sounded anticlimactic after the Bartók, and you really felt for third-placed Ariel Lanyi in having to give the competition’s closing performance. He and Manze started well, helped by Tim Jackson’s warm-toned horn solo, but this long, long concerto dragged. There was much to admire: Lanyi’s emotional generosity in the first movement’s lyrical passages was striking, and there was a glorious contribution from principal cello Jonathan Aasgaard in the Andante. Maybe he, and we in the audience, were a tad weary by then, I’d certainly pay to hear Lanyi play the concerto again in a different setting.

It feels churlish to grumble; both evenings contained stunning playing. I do wish that the finalists were able to select from a broader pool of concertos; wouldn’t it be fun to hear someone tackle Saint-Saëns, or Poulenc, or Gershwin? And, while Manze and the RLPO achieved miracles on extremely limited rehearsal time, what if Leeds’s own Orchestra of Opera North could take on accompanying duties? Still, that this huge event took place at all is worth celebrating, artistic director Adam Gatehouse paying warm tribute to the scores of organisations and individuals behind the scenes who made things happen. Only a few years to wait until the next one: let’s see what happens in 2024.

@GrahamRickson

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