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Seen and Heard Competition Report

London International Piano Competition Finals
: Jayson Lloyd Gillham, Jean-Frédéric Neuberger, Herbert Schuch (pianos); LPO/Sian Edwards, Royal Festival Hall, 12 April, 2005 (CC)

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 way.

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.

Colin Clarke

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.

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