The History of the Competition

Founded in 1961 by Dame Fanny Waterman DBE DMus FRCM and Marion Thorpe CBE, the Leeds International Piano Competition has helped to initiate the careers of some of the world’s greatest pianists. ‘The Leeds’ as it is affectionately known is held every three years, with young pianists’ worldwide flocking to the city for the chance to win the coveted Princess Mary Gold Medal as well as the numerous prestigious engagements that the Competition offers to its prize winners.

Competition Founders Dame Fanny Waterman (left) and Marion Thorpe (right) with Benjamin Britten, who composed his ‘Notturno’ as a test piece for the Competition.

There have been 16 instalments of the Competition to date, the first of which was back in 1963 when the first prize was won by British pianist Michael Roll. The Competition has occurred triennially ever since (except notably after 1996 when it was held four years later to coincide with the turn of the millennium), and each time has helped to bring many great pianists to prominence. Rafael Orozco won in 1966, was followed three years later by Radu Lupu in 1969, and whose triumph in turn was followed by that of Murray Perahia in 1972. More great winners followed - Dimitri Alexeev (1975), Michel Dalberto (1978), Ian Hobson (1981), Jon Kimura Parker (1984), Vladimir Ovchinnikov, Artur Pizarro (1990), Ricardo Castro (1993) and Ilya Itin (1996). This high standard has continued into the new century with Alessio Bax (2000), Antti Siirala (2003), Sunwook Kim (2006) and the Competition’s first ever female First prize-winner, Sofya Gulyak in 2009.

The Princess Mary Gold Medal

‘The Leeds’ is renowned not only for its First prize winners, but also for the calibre of its runners-up. Second to Orozco in 1966 was the Russian pianist Viktoria Postnikova, and in 1969, George Pludermacher to Radu Lupu. The 1975 Competition remains a golden year in the history of the Competition, when the Finals featured not only Dimitri Alexeev but also celebrated pianists of today Mitsuko Uchida, Andras Schiff, Pascal Devoyon and now world-famous conductor Myung-Whun Chung. Other runner-ups have included Kathryn Stott, Peter Donohoe, Louis Lortie, Ian Munro, Noriko Ogawa, Lars Vogt, Leon McCawley and Ashley Wass, which goes to prove Dame Fanny Waterman’s assertion that “There are no losers at Leeds” (from ‘Piano Competition: The Story of The Leeds’ by Wendy Thompson, © Faber 1990)

The Jury for the 1966 Leeds International Piano Competition

An international competition requires a jury of international calibre - a standard that ‘The Leeds’ throughout its history has always set. Naturally, the primary criteria for selecting the Jury for a piano competition has always been - as Marion Thorpe put it - “Finding pianists one admired and enjoyed listening to, and whose judgement one could trust.” This has always been a crucial element of the Leeds competitions, and previous juries have included such internationally celebrated pianists as Gina Bachauer, Sir Clifford Curzon, Gyorgy Sandor, Tatiana Nikolaeva and John Lill. Being a competition intended to unearth complete musicians however, it has also always been vital to include jurors from other fields such as the media, pedagogy and music criticism. Former Composer of the Queen’s Music Sir Arthur Bliss, celebrated teacher Nadia Boulanger and acclaimed author Charles Rosen are just three names in a cast of many that have fit this bill, and the Competition continues to this day to give competitors the chance to play for prestigious and well-balanced juries.

Leon McCawley performing with Sir Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra at the 1993 Competition Finals

Those who have reach the Finals of ‘The Leeds’ have always had the opportunity to play a concerto with orchestra in front of a sold-out audience at Leeds Town Hall. The Competition has enjoyed excellent relationships with some of Britain’s finest orchestras and their conductors, including the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic with Sir Charles Groves (1963-1975) the BBC Philharmonic with Vernon Handley (1984) and The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Sir Simon Rattle (1987-2000). The Competition has been in partnership with the Hallé and Sir Mark Elder since 2003 and we are delighted that this will continue to be the case at the 2012 Competition Finals.

The Leeds International Piano Competition will be judged by its prize-winners, and we hope that those of 2012 will continue to reach the standards of those who passed through Leeds before them. Please explore the History section to find out more about all previous instalments of the Competition and their Finalists.