On Sunday six excellent young pianists competed for the three prizes at the Watford International Piano Competition in memory of Christopher Duke. It offered an exciting glimpse of the future of pianism.
The competition allows a free choice of repertoire within the 30 minute time limit for each performer but a Waltz by Chopin has to be played. Bach, Beethoven and romantic composers featured plus Scriabin, Debussy and Rachmaninov, but there was no Mozart, Schubert or Brahms. The standard was even higher than last year and the six pianists served up a feast of music making, which put many a seasoned professional pianist to shame. The audience size had also increased since last year, but it was unfortunate that the tuning of the Steinway concert grand deteriorated rapidly as the competition progressed. This report is meant to reflect not only my own opinion but I have also canvassed the opinions of other audience members. Hopefully it provides some background as well as food for thought for both listeners and performers to the wonderful playing we experienced.
Edward Leung set the bar very high for the other competitors with his amazing control of the keyboard and pleasingly varied programme selection. Sgambati’s popular arrangement of Gluck’s famous Melodie from Orfeo was beautifully shaped. The following Chopin Waltz in A flat Op 42 didn’t quite tease out all the melodic possibilities of its main theme seemingly at odds with the underlying waltz rhythm, but offered lots of contrast in the alternating sections. The quirky interlude of Shchedrin’s Humoresque was followed by the pièce de resistance, Liszt’s grand operatic ‘Norma’ fantasy. Played in the grand manner, as here, it is hugely entertaining and won over both audience and jury. It will be fascinating to see where Edward goes from his first prize here and to hear him taking on the challenge of Bach and the Viennese classics.
Pin-Wen Wang’s opening choice of Bach’s Prelude & Fugue in F minor from Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier was in many ways as difficult as any virtuoso piece played on that day. Her Prelude was perhaps a little hurried and she could have given herself more time to allow her musical ideas to flourish here. The Fugue theme, light years ahead of anything Vivaldi or Handel wrote, was nicely shaped and it would have been wonderful if she had carried this shaping forward. The Chopin Waltz in A flat Op 64 No 3 she played was chosen by half the competitors and offered some interesting comparisons. Much less well known than the Minute Waltz and the C sharp minor Waltz of the same opus, its theme seems to attempt to turn the third beat into the downbeat. There was a lost opportunity here to explore this, but no one dared to offer more than a rather conservative standard waltz rhythm. Pin-Wen’s slower tempo allowed the phrases to breathe but the final climax required a bit more virtuosity. Her Debussy, Rachmaninov and Chopin Polonaise were played with a nice sound and she just needs more performance experience to allow her ideas to express themselves freely.
Raymond Yiu was well remembered by many from last year’s competition and he richly deserved his 3rd prize. His opening Scriabin Poème was magical, just the right mix of light and shade. It seemed impossible for this to be played better. The Berg Sonata also had a true sense of the expressionist style and powerful climaxes. It could have started more quietly to allow the reinvented Tristan chords to work their magic and for the polyphonic lines to flow. The Chopin E minor Waltz had plenty of verve and character. A touch more elegance and less hurry in the opening theme was all that was needed. The Bach/Liszt Variations are less of a crowd pleaser than ‘Norma’ and it was wonderful to hear this rarely performed piece so vividly characterised. Raymond drew on all his enormous musical and pianistic powers to bring it to life.
Pui-Yee Angela Lau also began with some stunning Scriabin, the 2nd Sonata in a performance that could hardly be bettered. Her teacher Gordon Fergus-Thompson recorded the entire Scriabin piano work and she did him proud. It was perhaps a surprise to some that she walked away without a prize as her playing was much appreciated by many in the audience. She managed to achieve the same volume of sound with far less effort than her male colleagues and drew some exquisite poetic sounds from an instrument in less than perfect tuning. Her Rachmaninov was also almost in the same league as her Scriabin. Chopin and Beethoven didn’t perhaps bring out the best in her, a slight lack of musical communication was sensed by some.
XueLin Xie was the ideal pianist to some listeners who saw his playing as clearly superior. In many ways that is understandable as his boundless rhythmic energy and impressive command of the keyboard are wonderful in a young man of just 20. His Chopin Waltz was well played and will be excellent when he develops more poetic freedom and rhythmic finesse. Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata began very fast, but not quite pianissimo, and the later chorale theme could not be reconciled with the overall tempo. New research suggests that the ‘Josephine’ theme of the discarded Andante favori is cast into darkness in the slow Introduzione, but despair was not really conveyed here. The re-emergence into light in the final Rondo needed a more singing tone. It was refreshing to see the Waldstein Sonata tackled with enthusiasm and great pianistic skill and there are of course many different ways of playing it. The final Glowing Red Morning Star Lilies by Jian-Zhong Wang added to the overall impression of a supremely gifted pianist whose musical development we will all watch with great interest.
Kyle Nash-Baker does not perhaps have the easy virtuosity of some of his peers but he plays with a composer’s insight into the music and earned himself a second prize. Debussy’s La Danse de Puck was quirky and colourful, ‘Ce qu’a vue le vent d’ouest’ just requiring a touch more gothic horror in the bass. The Chopin F minor Waltz was expressive and stylish and the A minor Mazurka oozed poetry. The first movement of Schumann’s Fantasy was at times truly passionate but not ‘throughout’, as Schumann insisted. The poetry and polyphony of the lyrical secondary themes was somewhat lacking. He may well turn out to be the most talented overall competitor but needs a more unwavering focus to allow his personality to really flourish.
How to judge a competition is an eternal problem, especially when the standard is as again as high as it was on this occasion. It is rather wonderful that such a complex picture emerged from this year’s competition, a snapshot of where each one of them is at the moment, and perhaps no more. But it provides a platform for exceptional young people, an opportunity for them to gain invaluable experience and for us to listen and make up our own minds.
There is of course only so much you can expect of young musicians and they will all be even better in the future. It was touching to discover how much potential there is in these young people, how serious they are about their art and how much effort they are prepared to put into playing the piano. They should all feel very proud of themselves as we feel grateful and inspired having heard them play.
Many thanks to James Kirby and Kathron Sturrock, our excellent jury, and the many helpers and supporters who made it all possible, not least Sandra and Bill Duke.
We are all looking forward to an exciting competition in 2019!
Further details can be found on the entry form for the 2018 competition.
As a soloist and chamber musician, James performs regularly throughout the UK and Europe. His recital work includes appearances at major concert series in France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Holland, the Czech Republic, Bermuda, Hong Kong and Malaysia, and in the UK at the Wigmore Hall and the Edinburgh and Aldeburgh festivals.
A member of the Barbican Piano Trio since 1992, James has performed regularly at the Wigmore Hall, in major UK festivals and concert series, and throughout Europe and the USA. Particular highlights include a performance at Carnegie Recital Hall and many cycles of Beethoven's Complete Piano Trios including one in the Master Concert Series at Wigmore Hall.
James has served on the juries of several international Piano competitions, most recently in Romania, Latvia, Russia and Slovenia. He is in considerable demand for masterclasses and as an adjudicator, and is a member of the ABRSM examining panel, which has taken him all over Europe and the Far East.
Kathron Sturrock is a founder member and Artistic Director of the eminent chamber ensemble The Fibonacci Sequence, now in its 24th year, whose members, many of whom are on faculties of conservatoires both in UK and abroad, appear in festivals worldwide. Kathron Sturrock was twice the winner for the best pianist at the Sofia International Opera Competition. After these awards she was invited to work for several years with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in her Master Classes throughout Europe. As a soloist she has appeared with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Concert Orchestra, making her Proms debut in 1994 playing Alan Rawsthorne’s Concerto for 2 pianos with Piers Lane. She has recorded CDs for Hyperion, Chandos, Gamut, Pickwick, Sain, ASV, Black Box, Quartz and Deux-Elles. In September 2003 she joined the Keyboard Faculty at the Royal College of Music, London. Kathron has been invited to join the Erasmus Exchange programme with Freiburg Hochschule in the 2018-2019 academic year.
'...My best memories of Schubert's D 845 have been of Kathron Sturrock (founder of Fibonacci Sequence) in a rare solo recital devoted to that one work, and on CD, Richard Goode....'Musical Pointers'
Recent winners of the Competition who have gone on to busy international careers include Alexander Ullman and Ji Liu (both YCAT Artists in 2015 and 2016) and Riyad Nicolas, currently selected by The Countess of Munster Musical Trust.