Review: 2021 Leeds International Piano Competition finals

21 September 2021
By Erica Worth
Winner Alim Beisembayev steals the show

At this year’s 20th Leeds International Piano Competition – the first to take place since the death of its irrepressible founder, Fanny Waterman – the jury got it spot-on: 23-year-old Kazakhstani pianist Alim Beisembayev, a somewhat calm and reserved character off-stage but certainly raring to go on the concert platform, won with his electrifying and thoughtful performance of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

A daring repertoire choice for a competition final (his other offering was Beethoven No 4), Beisembayev was able to produce all the colours and articulations this work needs – from the spikey staccato chords in the opening variations to the Hollywoodesque Variation No 18, where both a lush tone and an understanding of broad phrasing are needed.


Beisembayev in action ©


From start to finish, Beisembayev, a former Purcell School student who is presently studying at the Royal College of Music, conveyed musical conviction, enjoying every syncopated dialogue exchange between himself and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (conductor Andrew Manze revelling in every moment, too). Beisembayev also won the Audience Prize and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Society Award for the best communicator of contemporary music (his semi-finals Ligeti was indeed spellbinding).

Fellow RCM student Thomas Kelly (22) was the local British hopeful. His handling of the Beethoven Fourth Concerto was an uneven and erratic affair (bravo, though, for a convincing first-movement cadenza and a sparkling third movement). But in the back of my mind, I had memories of Leeds 2018 winner Eric Lu’s sovereign account of the same concerto; no surprise Kelly was placed fifth.


The 2021 Leeds International Competition finalists. From left to right: Dmytro Choni, Ariel Lanyi, Kaito Kobayashi, Alim Beisembayev, and Thomas Kelly. © Instagram/@leedspiano


Beethoven was also on the menu from Ukrainian Dmytro Choni (28) with the Third Concerto. Placed fourth, Choni executed some sublime runs, but overall this interpretation lacked flair. Where was the meaning behind the notes?

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The other major talent of the evening, playing the rarely-heard and non-showy Bartók Third, was Kaito Kobayashi (25) from Japan. Placed second, his clarity and beauty of tone came to the fore throughout, especially in the slow movement which was full of emotion, reflection and a near-religious feeling – no mean feat for such complex writing, which Kobayashi understood to the full. He also won the Yaltah Menuhin Chamber Music Award.

From a subtle Bartók Third to one of the mightiest pieces in the concerto repertoire, Brahms’s Second, which was performed by Israeli Ariel Lanyi (23). A musically gifted pianist, Lanyi tried to take hold of the concerto as best he could, but one felt he never quite tamed the beast. There were some fine moments though, in the second and fourth movements, where his rich chord playing managed to sound over a rather noisy orchestra. Lanyi was placed third.


The Kazakhstani pianist is presented with the Dame Fanny Waterman Gold Medal. © Nabin Maharjan/SoulandCo


All in all, a fine outcome for this edition of The Leeds. Beisembayev is a worthy winner, and I can only predict a brilliant future for this humble giant from Kazakhstan. Dame Fanny would have been proud.

You can re-watch each of the finalist's performances, as well as the previous rounds, at