The crescendo to the final of the 2018 Leeds International Piano Competition has been abuzz with activity, commentary and interviews, concerts and masterclasses, and has created a wonderful sense of a shared celebration of all things piano. Many of these activities are the initiative of the new Artistic Directors of the Leeds competition (Adam Gatehouse and Paul Lewis) in a bid to give the competition a wider reach beyond the confines of the concert hall, and even experiencing them at arm’s length, via social media and the broadcasts on MediciTV, I’ve sensed the excitement surrounding the revamped Leeds competition. The addition of a chamber music element to the competition is a very welcome one too, in my opinion, and I agree fully with Adam Gatehouse’s assertion that if one is able to play, connect and communicate with other musicians in a chamber music setting, one is also able to connect and communicate with an orchestra – as the finalists must do in their concerto performances.

MediciTV’s live stream of all the performances has brought an immediacy to those of us who didn’t make it to Leeds in person – the broadcasts are no longer consigned to a discreet evening slot on BBCFour – and also makes the competition feel truly international: anyone can tune in from around the world.

Performances by Aljoša Jurinić (Croatia, aged 29), Anna Geniushene (Russia, aged 27) and Mario Häring (Germany, aged 28) comprised the first evening’s finals concert, and here I offer my brief thoughts (from notes made while watching the live stream broadcast) on the three competitors:

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Aljoša Jurinić

Aljoša Jurinić – Mozart Piano Concerto in C minor, K491

It’s really cheering to see a Mozart concerto in a piano competition final. And this year there are, unusually, no concertos by Rachmaninov or Tchaikovsky. A shot of Aljoša Jurinić backstage, chatting to conductor Edward Gardner, showed a young man who looked incredibly chilled and relaxed ahead of one of the most significant performances of his career. This easefulness was translated into his playing which was natural and poised. The first movement had a lovely clarity of articulation and shading, with a good sense of synergy between soloist and orchestra. Jurinić seemed sensitive to the drama and muscularity of this opening movement, creating a sense of spontaneity and improvisation, particularly in the cadenza. The second movement was elegant and good-natured, but the finale felt a little too polite/safe for me. Given that this concerto was completed just before the premiere of The Marriage of Figaro, I felt more operatic drama was needed. But overall, this was a very mature, confident and engaging performance.

Anna Geniushene – Prokofiev Piano Concerto No.3 in C major, Op.26 

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Anna Geniushene

This for me was a really fine performance – assured, confident, with soul and personality, and a wonderful sense of freedom. My husband, who was half watching in between following la Vuelta (tour of Spain cycling race on his laptop), remarked, without any prompting from me, that he playing was “singing and colourful”. I last heard this concerto performed by Martha Argerich at the Festival Hall in 2016, and I felt Anna brought some of the same excitement, colour and spontaneity to the work, as well as a clear sense of ownership. Her communication with conductor and orchestra was excellent, and the passages where the piano part seems to take flight into its own world were very convincing.

Noriko Ogawa deemed it “a dream concerto!” after the performance – and I agree with her: it was!

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Mario Häring

Mario Häring – Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15

A warm, generous and joyous performance by Mario Häring, with excellent communication with conductor and orchestra. I felt the conductor in particular was really enjoying this work and the pleasure came through, with Mario responding equally in a performance that was lively, precise, colourful and engaging with great clarity and musical sense.

Tonight’s concert features performances by the other two finalists, Eric Lu and Xinyuan Wang.

Follow the Leeds Competition on MediciTV and on Twitter via #LeedsPiano2018


More on the Leeds on this blog:

Leeds preview – in conversation with Jon Jacob

Podcast with Adam Gatehouse

Prokofiev – Sarcasms

Ravel – Miroirs

Prokofiev – Visions fugitives Op. 22

Rachmaninov – Piano Sonata No. 2 in Bb minor Op. 36

Steven Osborne, piano

Anyone requiring evidence of a thriving musical life outside of mainstream concert halls should look no further than local music societies, which offer varied concerts and busy seasons and attract top flight artists. St Luke’s Music Society, based at St Luke’s, a beautiful church in south-west London modeled on an Italian basilica and boasting a fine acoustic, was founded in 2003 and offers a popular season of concerts.  Artists this season include Nicola Benedetti and Michael Collins.

Appropriately for a concert held on Burns’ Night (25th January), the soloist was Scottish pianist Steven Osborne. But there the association ended, for the programme featured works by Russian and French composers – Prokofiev, Ravel and Rachmaninov.

The concert opened with Prokofiev’s rarely-performed Sarcasms (which Osborne has recorded for Hyperion). In these provocative miniatures, Prokofiev eschews the trend amongst late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century composers for writing salon pieces based on fairy tales and impressionistic evocations, and instead opts for biting mockery and the grotesque, much in the manner of Schoenberg’s Three Piano Pieces Op 11 or Bartok’s Burlesques and Allegro Barbaro. Alert to the idiosyncratic character of these brief pieces, Osborne’s imaginative approach gave the works the necessary snap and humour, with terse rhythms and a vivid percussive attack, though never at the expense of clarity and tonal quality.

In contrast, Ravel’s Miroirs are very much about impressionistic evocations, though they share Prokofiev’s desire to break free of formal confines. Steven Osborne has a deep affinity with the music of Ravel, and other French composers such as Debussy and Messiaen (his recording of the Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jesus has received high praise, and his performance of the complete Vingt Regards at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall last year was one of the most involving and profound musical events I have ever experienced). His unerring ability to fully comprehend the structure and meaning of this music was amply demonstrated in an evocative and colourful performance, from the limpid figures of ‘Noctuelle’ to the foam-flecked swell of ‘Un Barque sur l’ocean’, the sultry rhythms of the ‘Alborada del gracioso’ and the plaintive, distant chimes of ‘La vallée des cloches’. Clarity of sound, tonal shading, deftness of touch and musical understanding brought Ravel’s impressions to life with an atmospheric and shimmering palette of colours and sounds.

More Prokofiev after the interval, and snapshots of his most characteristic moods – grotesque, aggressive, assertive, poetic, mystical, delicate – in the Visions Fugitives, short pieces which shows the composer’s burgeoning talent in their contrasting moods, melodies, textures and rhythms. Osborne acute ability to move between the capricious individual characters of these short pieces – graceful melodies, moments of meditation and repose, violent virtuosity – made for a persuasive and engaging account.

The final work of the evening, Rachmaninov’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, was tautly managed, yet expansive, Osborne giving rein to the full romantic sweep of this work, at times redolent of the Third Piano Concerto. The rich hues and dense textures of the first movement contrasted with a beautifully nuanced second movement before a brilliant and vibrant final movement which had members of the audience on their feet applauding before the last notes had died in the hall. A single encore, one of Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales, brought to a close a superb evening of music making of the highest order.

Steven Osborne performs the same programme at Wigmore Hall on 14th February.

St Luke’s Music Society