Bartók may have declared that "competitions are for horses" but in today's international music scene competitions can be hugely significant in a young artist's burgeoning career. The Leeds International Piano Competition is no exception. Since its creation in 1963 by the indomitable Dame Fanny Waterman, past winners now rank amongst some of the finest pianists on the international circuit today, including Radu Lupu and Murray Perahia, and more recently Sunwook Kim and Federico Colli. There have only been two female winners of the competition, one of whom is Russian pianist Anna Tsybuleva, winner of the 2015 competition, who made her debut at the Wigmore Hall last night in an unusual programme of “fantasies” or fantasy-like works, spanning almost 300 years of music history.

Anna Tsybuleva © Vera Greiner
Anna Tsybuleva
© Vera Greiner

The concert opened with CPE Bach’s 10-movement Fantasia in F sharp minor, a work which combines stately, meditative Adagio and Lento sections with Allegretto interludes rich in exotic arabesques, brilliant counterpoint and sparkling keyboard techniques which reveal the extemporisation for which the composer was renowned. If the opening movement seemed a little tentative (imagine the weight of expectation placed upon a young competition winner playing the Wigmore for the very first time!), the work settled into a performance of restrained elegance in the slower movements, and a degree of drama, though the more florid sections never really took flight and the improvisatory character of the work was rather lost in this cautious performance. However, there was much precise articulation and pristine technique to admire, and I enjoyed the more romantic approach which Tsybuleva chose for this work.

Schumann’s Études symphoniques, completed in 1837, the year he got engaged to Clara Wieck, is also a multi-movement work (a theme with eleven variations). A suite of studies in the manner of Chopin’s Etudes, these are concert pieces which explore the possibilities of technique and timbre in writing for the piano, and are “symphonic” through the complexity of colours, textures and timbres they evoke: in effect, the piano becomes a symphony orchestra. Like the CPE Bach, this is also a work whose contrasting movements offer flights of fantasy and scope for much variety of expression. There was sensitive dynamic shading, including exquisitely controlled pianissimos, barely whispered out of the piano (a technique which requires supreme control), and some really lovely cantabile in the tenth variation (a beautiful nocturne in G sharp minor), but overall the work felt rather cool and too safe, and the mercurial character of Schumann’s writing was not sufficiently evident.

The Medtner Sonata in G minor fared better, as the pianist seemed more settled into the programme and the venue. If the work lacked structural coherence, there was at least plenty of colour and expressive contrasts to highlight the work’s fantasy-like character, which linked it to the first half. And here one felt the performer had given herself permission to play with greater freedom and expansiveness

Three Preludes by Debussy followed: Voiles, its title suggesting both sails and diaphanous veils, was well-paced with the requisite mystery and stasis, clear articulation and restrained pedalling. Minstrels was humorous and cheeky, all comedy gestures and bouncing balls (suggested by repeated notes), while Feux d’Artifice (Fireworks) glittered in a frenzy of rapidly swirling notes which leapt across the keyboard, giving full rein to Anna’s assured technique. L’Isle joyeuse, Debussy’s own fantasy island, was graceful and poised, an uplifting close to the programme. A single encore followed – La fille aux cheveux de lin, played with an appealing suppleness and clarity of tone.