Seen and Heard Competition
London International Piano Competition Finals:
Jayson Lloyd Gillham, Jean-Frédéric Neuberger, Herbert
Schuch (pianos); LPO/Sian Edwards, Royal Festival Hall, 12 April,
A critic, according to actor Timothy West (the host of the LIPC’s
finals), is ‘someone who knows the way but cannot drive
the car.’ Ouch. But inadvertently he hinted at the flaw
that characterized, to a greater or lesser degree, all three finalists
of this year’s competition. All three could drive the car
(a Steinway non-convertible), but none of them really knew the
Some got more lost than others. It was good to have both Liszt
concertos in the first half, and the first two finalists (Australia
and France respectively, both born 1986) revealed two very different
responses to this composer. First up was Jayson Lloyd Gillham
(the Australian) in Liszt’s First Concerto. There were some
risks taken with the opening octave flourishes, but not all came
off. Still, Gillham has a fairly biggish sound that in general
served him well, although curiously it did not rise to full power
when necessary, resulting in the piano being drowned by the orchestra.
Gillham can do filigree very well (particularly evident in the
slow movement); he can also not do it very well. But he lacks
sensitivity, and was without the equipment for the (supposedly)
airy, cheeky passages. The finale was like a rehearsal. Careful,
studied, heavy-footed and leaden with fantasy missing (as well
as a good few notes), and it was this literalism that resulted
in very little excitement at the very end. Relief was writ large
on the young man’s face at the end. I felt for him.
Next up, Frenchman Jean-Frédéric Neuberger, looking
every inch as scared as Gillham. Lambs to the slaughter. In a
sense, for this critic, he had an even harder job to convince
(I have always heard the second concerto as the compositionally
weaker of the two). It was a relief that he delivered a real performance.
With less mechanical filigree and significantly more fire in his
belly, this pianist played with enough confidence, at least, to
make me feel safe as a listener. There is fantasy in Neuberger’s
playing, and he is capable of very intelligent part-voicing. This
was not world-class playing, but the talent is clearly there.
In fact, here it was the LPO and Sian Edwards that disappointed,
not always on the ball when it came to piano-orchestra synchronisation
and distinctly low-voltage in the finale.
Finally, German Herbert Schuch tackled, bravely, Beethoven’s
Fifth Concerto. There was much to admire in Schuch’s playing,
all of which had to be set against a recurring tendency towards
the pedestrian and a proclivity for point-making simply for the
sake of it without reference to the bigger picture. A shame a
vital moment of arrival between piano and orchestra went so awry
(the orchestra enters atop piano semiquaver runs about a quarter
of an hour in), but more seriously Schuch has to cultivate a bigger
sound. Arpeggio work can be routine and some lack of imagination
in the slow movement was worrying (stolid left-hand accompaniments,
important ‘alto’ voices ignored). There was something
of the celebratory about the somewhat under-tempo finale, but
there was literal scalic work also and an aversion to risk taking.
And the result? Well, I disagreed in 2000 and I disagree now.
Herbert Schuch was the winner; Neuberger has more talent. Way
back then, I wanted to hear some more of Simon Trpceski (more
of a problem to spell him than to hear him these days), definitely
more of Luca Rasca (disappeared completely as far as I know),
and much less of Antti Siirala, the then-winner. This time I am
not sure I want to hear any of them again in a hurry.
Postscriptum: When I attended the finals back
in 2000, the hall was really quite full and I sat in the choir
stalls. No-one at all in the choir stalls this time, and loads
of spare seats. Despite this, for some reason ticket allocation
meant that critics’ seats were right with the official photographer,
meaning that concentration in the first two concertos at least
was continually interrupted by clicks and whirrs (I thought they
made silent cameras now?) and flashes. Very disturbing when one
is trying to map-read.