Feature Review: Leeds International Pianoforte Competition 2006

Written by: Mike Langhorne

Final Stage – 22 & 23 September, Town Hall, Leeds

Finalists (in alphabetical order):
Andrew Brownell (Age 27 – USA)
Grace Fong (27 – USA)
Sung-Hoon Kim (28 – Republic of Korea)
Sunwook Kim (18 – Republic of Korea)
Denis Kozhukhin (20 – Russia)
Siheng Song (24 – China)

Concerto repertoire (in alphabetical order):
Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor, Op.15
Piano Concerto No.21 in C, K467
Piano Concerto No.24 in C minor, K491
Piano Concerto No.1 in D flat, Op.10
Piano Concerto No.3 in C, Op.26
Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, Op.18

Hallé Orchestra
Mark Elder

Jury: Dame Fanny Waterman (Chairman), Dmitri Alexeev, Dmitri Bashkirov, Choi Sown Le, Bella Davidovich, Klaus Hellwig, Ian Hobson, Renna Kellaway, Emanuel Krasovsky, Piotr Paleczny, Jacques Rouvier, Béla Siki, Xu Zhong, Zhou Guangren

The grim visage of the monolith that is Leeds Town Hall was again the venue for the Finals of this the fifteenth Leeds International Pianoforte Competition. The co-founder of the Competition, the indefatigable Dame Fanny Waterman (86 this year), chaired a panel of 13 international judges over a gruelling series of recitals. Stages 1-3, the latter being the Semi-Finals (which included the compulsory Night Piece (Notturno) by Benjamin Britten), were held in The Great Hall in the University of Leeds from 6-19 September and begun with 71 invited pianists (from 77 listed and who were chosen from a couple of hundred of applicants).

From 71 down to 6 for the concerto Final, held over two nights, with the Hallé Orchestra under its Music Director, Mark Elder. Fortunately the chosen finalists had offered – in advance from a given list – a different work: two well-balanced programmes ensued.

The nationalities of the six finalists reflected the large number of entries from the Far East with nearly a third coming from the Republic of Korea, China or Japan, and a similar number coming from Eastern Europe. Thus for the Final heard two Koreans, one from China, one Russian and two from the United States. There were two entrants from the UK – David McGrory and Tom Poster – who didn’t progress too far.

Grim though the Victorian exterior of Leeds Town Hall certainly is, the auditorium is surprisingly chirpy with its white-and-gold Christmas cake of an organ, the flags of participating countries draped from the centre top of the platform to each side, HMS Pinafore-like, and the vivid colours of the hall’s décor and the new-looking royal blue seating all adding to the festive ambience.

As in previous years both Final nights were a sell-out and there was a lively mix of civic dignitaries, local people, piano enthusiasts and representatives of the classical music industry. Indeed one elderly couple I spoke to had travelled from Belgium to attend. They seem to be making a retirement hobby of attending international competitions and took a keen interest in pianists they had seen at other competitions.

Opening the first concert was Mozart’s C major concerto (K467), now, alas, forever saddled with the association to Ingmar Bergman’s film “Elvira Madigan”. Here Grace Fong played the work. She played with a maturity that reflected her experience. Whether she was helped by Mark Elder’s decision to place the woodwinds and horns to the right of the conductor’s podium and thus obscured, I would guess, from the pianist by the piano itself is a moot point. But she can certainly shape a phrase with refinement and did not over romanticise the ‘famous’ central movement. She impressed with her cool professionalism and pleasant stage presence.

Siheng Song, who has a transcendental technique, favoured the steam-hammer approach for the short one-movement Prokofiev First Concerto; he thundered through the dense rhythmic textures with ease but found little of the piquancy and throwaway charm of the quieter passages. His case was not helped by an opaque stage-presence, which only just recognised the presence of fellow-musicians and an audience.

Sunwook Kim, aged 18, chose Brahms’s huge First Concerto – as physically gruelling as it is intellectually challenging and a tour de force that many seasoned concert artists find a tough mountain to climb. Surely a mistake for one so young? Apparently not. It held no terrors for Kim who, after the long orchestral opening, launched into the piano’s massive chordal introduction with such drama that all doubts were cast aside. Here is a pianist who can play with an imagination and musicianship that is all his own. One never felt he was reprocessing what he had been taught. He is the real thing – a performer who can communicate. No doubt his view of the Brahms will deepen as he develops but he was absolutely right to go for broke and risk all with such a challenging piece.

The second evening also started with a Mozart concerto, the C minor, K491, played by Sung-Hoon Kim. (Woodwinds and horns were once again to the right.) It was quickly apparent that this Kim was no match for his younger namesake. The burly pianist played with all the self-regard of one well pleased with himself but he succeeded only in despatching the concerto in monochrome; he had little interesting to say about the piece.

Andrew Brownell, on the other hand, was well on top of the bittersweet box of tricks that is Prokofiev’s Third Concerto. He glittered and sparkled his way through it, pointing up grotesqueries as well as charm and romanticism. A pity he and the orchestra parted company a couple of times in the finale, but Brownell’s is a name to watch out for.

Finally, Denis Kozhukhin joined Mark Elder and the Hallé for a rousing conclusion, Rachmaninov’s Concerto No.2. The Town Hall was alive with gossip that this was the big one. He would sweep all before him and walk off with the First Prize. There is no doubt that he is an accomplished player. Perhaps he was nervous or just off-form but he rushed his fences, reducing the exquisite slow movement in the process, and aimed for the gallery in the last movement and fell short.

And the winner was? The judges deliberated for an hour or so. Eventually we were requested to return to the auditorium for the announcements by Dame Fanny Waterman and the awarding of prizes by Dame Janet Baker, the LIPC’s Patron. In the end there were no great surprises. The First Prize went, rightly, most people thought, to Sunwook Kim for his musical Brahms. Second was Andrew Brownell (who also took a prize for his playing of Britten’s Night Piece) and the Third Prize went to Kozhukhin. Coming in at fourth, (perhaps a little generously) was Siheng Song, followed, respectively, by Sung-Hoon Kim and Grace Fong.

Given that well over 200 pianists applied to participate in LIPC 2006, some of the final six were on the disappointing side. The first three deserved their accolades, but it is a bit perturbing that there were no others in this field of entrants with enough musicianship and personality to shine through.

  • Leeds International Pianoforte Competition
  • First: Sunwook Kim
  • Second: Andrew Brownell
  • Third: Denis Kozhukhin
  • Fourth: Siheng Song
  • Fifth: Sung-Hoon Kim
  • Sixth: Grace Fong
  • BBC4 to show the Final performances on separate evenings from Tuesday 26 September at 7.10 p.m. and repeated

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