Alim Beisembayev and Eric Lu, winners of the Leeds International Piano Competition in 2021 and 2018 respectively, have both released new albums. 

Eric Lu impressed at the 2018 competition with his beautiful tone and the phrase “poet of the piano” is regularly attached to his playing. Elegant lyricism is highly appealing, especially in the music of Chopin, which Lu recorded for his previous album.  There is no doubt that Schubert too was a spinner of beautiful, long-spun melodies, but in the case of the music selected by Lu for his latest release, I do not believe that poetry and golden cantabile are enough to convince in this instance.

Lu says in interviews that Schubert is “the composer who moves me most intensely….I love Schubert. It is difficult to describe how meaningful his music is to me.” Yet I felt on listening to this album that Lu had not fully absorbed the “essence” of Schubert’s writing: to play this music pianistically, one must also absorb the songs, chamber music, other piano music et al. The result, for me at least, is a rather contrived sound. Lu aims for expression, overly romanticising the “tragedy” he perceives in Schubert’s writing, in particular in the Allegretto in c and the Sonata in A, D959, and clearly subscribing to the rather hackneyed, oft-quoted view that this work, along with the other two final sonatas, is a portent of the composer’s imminent demise. He portrays this through ponderous tempi (the Andantino of the D959 is positively funereal) and rather suspect use of rubato and agogic accents, which I suppose are intended to emphasise the pathos, poignancy, tragedy et al, in this music, but too often just sound artificial and interrupt the rhythmic flow of the music (most obviously in the Allegretto in c). Throughout the album, I found Lu’s playing rather too ‘safe’, too concerned with beauty of sound rather than highlighting the dramatic shifts of mood and contrasting colours in this music. Personally, I would have liked a little more “bite”, both rhythmically and dynamically, to disturb the beauty.

Contrast this with the new release from Alim Beisembayev, the young Kazakh pianist who at just 23 wowed the 2021 Leeds competition judges and audience with a dashing performance of Rachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini in the final, and who displayed remarkable poise, musicianship and maturity in his playing throughout the competition. 

In Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes, an ambitious choice for anyone, Beisembayev positively glitters: superlative, secure technique underpin playing which is daring and fearless from the outset (the Preludio is a stunning opener), with perfectly managed tempi and split-second precision (at no point does one feel that the pianist is in any way out of control), elegant lyricism when required (Paysage – the only piece in this set which I can actually play! – is tender, freighted with poignancy; likewise, the middle section of a fiercely dramatic Mazeppa), tasteful, subtle rubato, vibrant colours and contrasts, and a remarkable control of the momentum and drama within each piece. Feux Follets trips along with gossamer lightness and wit; Vision emerges from the darkness of G minor into heroism, while Harmonies du Soir is delicate yet sweepingly passionate. There is so much to enjoy and marvel at in this album, from tumultuous tumbling descents to sparkling virtuosity, tonal depth and colour, reverie and delicacy. And never once does one feel an ego getting in the way of the music. It’s showy playing, as demanded by the score, without being showy. A absolute treat of an album which reveals the myriad facets of Liszt’s musical personality, played by this young pianist who fully appreciates the variety and range of expression in this music.