Tales of fear and finesse at the Steinway

Leeds Piano Competition | Leeds Town Hall Billy Budd | Royal Opera House, London
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The pride of Leeds in the Leeds Piano Competition is disarming. The audience dresses up to the nines, tens and elevenses, and though some - like me - were only there for the final round of the two and a half week long piano competition, the atmosphere was as flouncily excited as that of the Wimbledon finals. The neo-gothic Town Hall sits back on its shiny heels with its thumbs comfortably tucked behind its brightly painted barrel-vaulted braces. Here I am - it seems to say - you can take me and my impossibly portentous acoustic as you find us. And the competition seems much the same; supremely confident in its own worth and totally unimpressed by the decision of the BBC to demote their usual live TV coverage to tonight's two-hour programme of highlights. Olympics? Pah! Whatever the concerns over the musical value of events like this they represent a serious leg-up in an oversubscribed profession. The phrase "they're all winners" is true in the case of the Leeds finalists - as is borne out by the careers of

The pride of Leeds in the Leeds Piano Competition is disarming. The audience dresses up to the nines, tens and elevenses, and though some - like me - were only there for the final round of the two and a half week long piano competition, the atmosphere was as flouncily excited as that of the Wimbledon finals. The neo-gothic Town Hall sits back on its shiny heels with its thumbs comfortably tucked behind its brightly painted barrel-vaulted braces. Here I am - it seems to say - you can take me and my impossibly portentous acoustic as you find us. And the competition seems much the same; supremely confident in its own worth and totally unimpressed by the decision of the BBC to demote their usual live TV coverage to tonight's two-hour programme of highlights. Olympics? Pah! Whatever the concerns over the musical value of events like this they represent a serious leg-up in an oversubscribed profession. The phrase "they're all winners" is true in the case of the Leeds finalists - as is borne out by the careers of former runners up such as Schiff, Uchida, Lortie and Berezowsky. For all six pianists the exposure of last week's finals alone means that the badly-paid concert on a badly-maintained instrument will now be the exception in their diaries, not the rule.

Brandenburgs excepted, more than one concerto of any kind is rare in a concert. It rocks your musical expectations to hear three concertos in a row two nights running, but the finals of the Leeds Piano Competition are more like a hybrid of civic event and public exam than a concert. You can be sure too that restrained repertoire (like, say, an early Mozart concerto) isn't going to bring home the bacon. Looking through the repertoire lists of the original 84 competitors I could only be grateful that the finals had worked out as Brahms x 3, plus Chopin, Tschaikowsky and Prokofiev, and not wall-to-wall Rachmaninov.

The pressure to be note-perfect makes risking the live performance sprezzatura that throws aside months of practice in an instant to make sheer magic - or a damp squib - an impossible gamble. And yet this is exactly what each finalist is asked to do. At the epicentre of the enthusiastic audience, 15 judges listen expressionlessly. Add to this the agents, the bookers, the radio relay team, the TV cameras, and the exciting but daunting opportunity to play a concerto with Sir Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and it's a wonder any of the final six make it on stage.

Certainly the British finalist, Ashley Wass (who inspired a Henmanesque adoration from the audience), looked white with fear as he took his place at the Steinway for the first of three versions of Brahms' first piano concerto. Wass's Brahms was spirited and clever but obviously distracted. Only the oldest competitor (and the one seemingly least in need of the career-boost that winning would provide) 31 year-old Cristiano Burato, was able to create a bubble of concentration around him that was strong enough to withstand the unusual tension - though his beautiful and self-contained performance of the Chopin F Minor also rather excluded Rattle. Davide Franceschetti, the surprise (to me) second prize winner, gave a silky warmth to the Brahms but lacked the bass to match his forceful treble, turning the adagio into an aria for right hand. Fifteen year old powerhouse Tatiana Kolessova thundered through the first and last movements of the Tschaikowsky but lapsed into an empty-headed, soft-focus middle movement. It was interesting watching Rattle and the CBSO attempt to give some edge to this sentimental gloop, but their almost Handelian detailing and attack - which worked to perfection in the Brahms and even the Chopin - was lost in the mawkish wash of this lumbering concerto.

Severin von Eckardstein - the only finalist to venture out of 19th century repertoire - tackled Prokofiev's second concerto with intense, icy phrasing and strong, precise fingers, making the spikiness of the work sing. Until Alessio Bax - the final competitor - played, I felt sure that von Eckardstein would sweep first prize but Bax's performance had a musicianship beyond technical mastery. As the third pianist to play the Brahms he far exceeded the extent to which any of the earlier competitors were prepared to forge a partnership with Rattle and the orchestra. If Wass lacked cohesion and Franceschetti lacked definition, Bax pulled together that perfect Brahmsian balance of intellect and emotion through subtle, generous and communicative playing. Each line of melody and harmony was deftly voiced, the stretti were clear and edgy, the legato sections had a persuasive timeless shimmer and there was even the odd splash and smudged note, thank goodness. This was real music-making that made its own world on the stage and invited the audience in as guests, rather than running at them screaming "look at me!".

I had my doubts about Leeds before going but I'm glad I went. To hear Rattle conduct the same work three times was fascinating, and to hear six players over two nights shows just how radically the touch of an individual player can alter the sound of the same instrument. I'm glad too that I heard Bax, and glad that Leeds' jury did not value technique above musicianship and gave him a fully deserved first prize.

Tuesday night will be the last chance to catch Covent Garden's revival of Francesca Zambello's coolly oppressive production of Billy Budd. Whatever you may have heard about the English surtitles (and how I wish that the Coliseum would adopt them too), you don't have to read them. And no matter how impeccable the diction of a cast, it can be difficult to hear every word if you're not comfortably and expensively seated in the stalls.

I still think Britten's tendency to tweeness is antipathetic to the appalling cruelty of Melville's story and my problems with the opera were not helped by Richard Hickox's boxy conducting. But the central performances of Eric Halfvarson (Claggart), Kim Begley (Vere) and Simon Keenlyside (Billy) are tremendously assured. The supporting cast boasts the wonderful Alan Opie and Timothy Robinson, a terrific performance from Francis Egerton as Whiskers, and Keel Watson, who makes a belated Covent Garden debut in the tiny role of the bosun. The chorus sing magnificently and Alison Chitty's designs in the sea/sky pallete of blues and greens and turquoise and indigo are a model of communicating size and space and fear and constraint through the sheerest of gestures.

The Royal Opera House has had such a pasting for its revival-heavy autumn schedule, but short of casting Robbie Williams as Billy, surely reviving Billy Budd (and the inadvertently comical Tosca with box-office draws like Alagna) is doing exactly what they've repeatedly been asked to do; to give the public what they want. Just a thought.

 

Leeds Piano Competition, BBC2, 10pm tonight. 'Billy Budd', Royal Opera House WC2 (020 7304 4000) 3 October

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