Backstage at the Leeds Piano Festival

The Leeds International Piano Competition is one of the major keyboard events of the year. As this year’s finalists prepare for the concerto round starting tonight, Southampton’s Head of Classical Performance, Professor David Owen Norris, gives us a sneak peek behind the scenes:

The Leeds International Piano Competition invited me to give two illustrated talks about the repertoire the 24 competitors would be playing, sketching in the historical background, the personalities, and some of the beguiling stories about them. With such a wealth of repertoire, I could only pick the highlights, and so my talks were entitled ‘Pianos & Preludes’ and ‘Keyboards & Concertos’. We traced Bach’s style back to William Byrd, via John Bull, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck and Dietrich Buxtehude; and we thought of Bach walking all the way from Saxony to Lübeck to hear Buxtehude, who was so taken with the keen young composer that he offered him his own, very desirable, job, provided Bach would marry his daughter – whereupon Bach walked all the way home again. We considered the Moonlight Sonata as a two-fold Romantic document, one aspect showing how the still-new piano could be coaxed to ever greater personal expression, and the other aspect showing Beethoven’s depression and rage at his encroaching deafness. We investigated how the personal musical emotion developed by great pianists was carried into orchestral music through the conducting of Mendelssohn and Wagner, and how, in so many ways, the piano was the key to the Romantic century.

The audience was agreeably pleased to find that the World’s First Piano Concerto was written by the Fattest Man in England – I’ve had a rubber stamp made so I can blazon this unbelievable truth on the back of every envelope. We let the fourteen-year-old Mozart teach us the difference between a sonata and a concerto, in his recompositions of JC Bach. We concentrated on the concertos most likely to be heard in the final: the popular choices were Beethoven 3 & 4, Mozart D minor, Prokofiev 3, Schumann, and Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Variations, where the Dies Irae forms a sort of anagram of Paganini’s theme.






The Leeds Competition scored a major march on all its rivals by somehow tempting the Cobbe Collection to visit. The Cobbe Collection, which lives at Hatchlands, a beautiful National Trust stately home near Guildford, is the most glittering collection of Composer-Related Keyboard Instruments in the world. Pianos belonging to Mahler, Elgar and Bizet are rather put in the shade by Purcell’s pair of virginals and Marie-Antoinette’s piano (well, mainly composers), and , especially, a suite of three Chopin pianos – the Broadwood on which Chopin gave his London recitals in 1848, the Erard belonging to his pupil Jane Stirling, which accompanied Chopin to Scotland, and his very own Pleyel piano, which Alec Cobbe had owned for twenty years before the Pleyel archives revealed that the piano with that serial number had belonged to Chopin. Alec tells a good story about the celebratory lunch that followed that revelation. That was one of the pianos that came to Leeds, along with the Longman & Broderip piano that Haydn took from London to Vienna, an instrument which so impressed Beethoven that he nagged the Viennese makers until they too adopted the una corda pedal. There were Viennese pianos too: a 1790s Stein, and an 1815 Walther – Walther, who built a piano for Mozart in 1782, and counted Beethoven and Schubert amongst his customers. Not to mention the 1816 Broadwood signed by JB Cramer, with its divided sustaining pedal, and a very early Steinway of 1864.

These fascinating instruments stood in the room devoted to the Treasures of the Brotherton Library for three days. Alec Cobbe and I demonstrated them to as many awed visitors at a time as could fit round them. The main thing they noticed was that they sound so different. Even the Steinway, which with its cross-stringing, suddenly sounded much more modern, still didn’t sound like a Steinway. Some of the jurors and competitors found time to come too, and were delighted to touch the ivories touched by Chopin and Haydn and Beethoven. (Cramer somehow meant less to them, but he was good too). A marvellous add-on to a great celebration of the piano, its composers, and their music.

All Leeds has crowded to the Competition since its foundation in 1963, and still they come, a warm and very knowledgable audience of terrific loyalty. I won a prize in the experimental one-off Leeds Singing Competition in 1980, and I was delighted to find several people who could still tell me what I performed, and what Dame Janet thought about it.

And at the heart of it all, of course, are the performers, intense, international, and with very muscly hands. They take their meals together, and a friendly bunch they are. More power to their elbows is probably the wrong thing to say, but you know what I mean.