Piers Lane reflects on the Sydney International Piano Competition

What were you doing in July 1977? If you were in Australia and a piano-lover, you were probably heading for Sydney or tuned into ABC Radio, the national broadcaster, because the new Sydney International Piano Competition was big news and you didn’t want to miss it. 40 pianists between the ages of 18 and 35 had been selected to compete after live auditions. I was among them, the youngest competitor, one of six Australians chosen from several days of auditions at the Verbrugghen Hall in the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, famously the former Government House stables.

A few months later, the competition recitals and chamber music rounds themselves took place in the honeyed acoustic of that hall and audiences flocked in to watch their favourites go through their paces. The demands were huge: two preliminary round recitals, a quarter-final recital, a semifinal comprised of an hour’s recital plus a piano quintet and preparation of twelve lieder, six of which were selected for one when the semifinals were announced. That particular test was tough on Helen McKinnon, the only singer, for two rehearsals per competitor and performances with thirteen semifinalists. She must have exhausted supplies of every lozenge known to singerkind! Then two concertos were required for the Finals, Mozart and something more recent.

The eventual winner was Irina Plotnikova, a willowy 22-year-old Russian, who became the darling of Australia. When she floated onstage to play Ondine, she was Ondine. We were in thrall, whether she played a Haydn Sonata or an inexorable Prokofiev Toccata, no more so than when she built wave upon lyrical wave of silvery toned Tchaikovsky in a Second Concerto few knew well, but which knocked Brahms 1 and Prokofiev 2 into a cocked hat. Plotnikova sprinkled stardust wherever she played and is now a sought after professor at the Moscow Conservatoire. I was on a jury that gave a prize to one of her students in Bremen three years ago. One of her recent students has made it into the elect 32 for the postponed 2020 Competition. It’s moving to appreciate such connections in the fulness of time. The sixth prizewinner, Manana Doijashvili, has herself since founded and directed the Tbilisi International Piano Competition and for years was Director of the Tbilisi State Conservatoire, respected and admired both for her pianism and her exemplary dedication to education and ensuring the best possible facilities for students. Like Plotnikova and third prizewinner André Laplante and several subsequent prizewinners, she has since served as a juror in Sydney.

The 1977 jurors were a distinguished lot, Australia represented by both the Competition’s founding Artistic Director Rex Hobcroft AM (then Director of the Sydney Conservatorium and the first Australian to play all the Beethoven piano sonatas in public) and Sir Bernard Heinz AC (another Conservatorium Director, a conductor of massive influence). Sergei Dorensky, an almost inevitable presence on any international piano competition jury throughout his life represented Russia, Eugene List the United States. Denis Matthews, the gloriously dapper English pianist and musicologist who undeservedly suffered witty ripostes for the title of his autobiography In Pursuit of Music, suffered too, it seems, in the pursuit of unrequited love during the competition – a danger to all during such fevered weeks! The beloved Hephzibah Menuhin was among the eleven remarkable judges at that first competition. I remember the British critic Bryce Morrison was about, giving talks and playing tracks of Reubke from a recent L’Oiseau-Lyre recording by a man who later became one of my most esteemed colleagues and dear friends in London: Hamish Milne, who was on the jury I selected for the 2016 Competition.

There were fascinating opportunities to hear the world-renowned collection of reproducing piano rolls owned by Denis Condon, there were visits to Sydney landmarks, there were parties at Government House and a final gala in the old Town Hall, when I, as winner of the ‘Best Australian Pianist’ award was asked to introduce the occasion with God Save the Queen, then still Australia’s national anthem. If it was heady stuff for a boy from Brisbane, it was a game changer for Australian pianism in general. Suddenly we were part of the international set, recognised immediately by the World Federation of International Music Competitions, a new destination for young pianists wishing to make their mark – and to visit that exotic land Down Under for just the price of lots of piano practice! Young Australian instrumentalists of all genres were motivated to think in international terms and a follow-up competition was unconditionally expected. 

A rhythm of quadrennial competitions was established, interrupted just once so that a Competition could take place in 1988, a salutary date in Australia: the bicentenary of the arrival of the First Fleet captained by Arthur Phillip and the founding of a penal colony at Sydney Cove in Port Jackson on 26 January, nowadays the Australia Day holiday. None of these competitions would have been possible without the vision and generosity of The Sydney’s co-founder with Rex Hobcroft: the redoubtable and glamorous Hungarian actress Claire Dan, who funded the competition personally and who left a legacy for its continuation after her death in 2012. Every competitor to the present day has been flown to Australia from their homeland, treated to top accommodation, and given a range of pianos to select from. In 1977 there were six brands represented. It’s down to four these days: Fazioli, Kawai, Steinway and Yamaha.

Various things have altered over the years: after the exigencies of catering for singers at the mercy of winter infections, lieder were dropped from the semifinals after several competitions; the chamber music round has variously explored piano trios, quintets, violin and cello sonatas. The quarter-final has disappeared. There have at times been required pieces like Debussy Préludes, these days no compulsory choices bar an Australian work. Two or three composers were usually commissioned to write works specially for each competition – quite a catalogue of ‘Sydney’ pieces is the result. I remember from my own experience in competitions though, that often one had to learn a newly commissioned work one couldn’t quite love, spending hours, days, weeks, committing it to memory – and then never performing it again after one’s untimely exit from said competition. For that reason and others, I decided in 2016 to ask competitors to choose any existing Australian piece to perform, of whatever length or period. It was fascinating to hear the results and it made for great variety in broadcasts. My thought was that, if competitors did their research and found a piece they liked, there was more likelihood they’d retain the work in their repertoire and play it for the rest of their lives in different parts of the world, which is going to do more for Australian composers than ‘competition pieces’ usually do. I’m excited that this boxed set includes a whole disc devoted to Australian music – that will be so useful to pianists Australian and otherwise. 

This anthology provides an entertaining and fascinating record of winning performances from 1992 to 2016. I still treasure the LP released after the 1977 competition, which includes a track of me playing the Scriabin Etude in ninths. Different acoustics influence how pianists produce tone. By 1992, the recital rounds of the competition were taking place in the Seymour Centre, not renowned for its acoustic, but welcoming in all other ways. The Finals, of course, were always in the Sydney Opera House, part of the allure for potential competitors – though its acoustic too, created a challenging test in itself. The Concert Hall at the Opera House is currently undergoing renovation, including a serious acoustic upgrading. How exciting to contemplate future concerts in a more grateful acoustic worthy of its venue’s renown! 

In 2016, the Competition not only continued its decades-old collaboration with ABC Classic [FM], which always allowed folk from Broome to Launceston, Biloela to Kalgoorlie (the gold-mining town where Eileen Joyce, twice a juror for the Sydney, grew up), to follow the progress of a talent they’d spotted right from the first round, it also live-streamed every performance, allowing the world to watch if time zones were friendly. Now those performances are available to revisit online. It’s unlikely, for that reason, that a boxed set such as this will ever be released again – streamed videos tend to achieve eternal resurrection, which can be a blessing or otherwise for musicians. But it means that this set of discs, so lovingly selected and catalogued by Cyrus Meher-Homji, himself a benignly influential force in Australian music, is a treasurable historical document. There are many delights to be found in the Transcriptions and Encores pair of discs, plus the Australian composers disc I’ve already mentioned, but the entire set provides a rich seam to be mined for hidden gold.

The 2016 Sydney International Piano Competition’s First Prize, named after Ernest Hutcheson, the Australian pianist and composer who ended up President of the Juilliard School in New York, was won by Russian pianist Andrey Gugnin. One of his awards was a recording for Hyperion Records. That disc, of Shostakovich Sonatas and Preludes, subsequently won the BBC Music Magazine Instrumental Award in 2020, referencing ‘electrifying musicianship, playing of mercurial brilliance, stunning articulation and an astonishing range of colour and dynamics’. Gugnin’s Competition program had everything a 21st-century pianist is expected to have: a command of core repertoire by Mozart and Beethoven, Prokofiev, Balakirev or Liszt – but it hinted at hidden depths with Zaderatsky or less typical offerings like Liszt’s Faribolo Pasteur. You can hear such pieces on these discs – a lesson in programming for modern young pianists. 

It is my great honour and pleasure to have followed in the footsteps of Rex Hobcroft and Warren Thompson as Artistic Director of that great Australian institution, the Sydney International Piano Competition. In a year when the Competition has had to meet the exceptional challenges of the times, morphing temporarily into an online recital event with unique requirements of its competitors, it is with particular gratitude that I thank Cyrus Meher-Homji and Universal Music for this set of historic recordings, which both remind us reassuringly of fruitful times past, letting us relive happy memories, but also helps us re-evaluate what has gone before, and feel out what is needed by pianists and their audiences in the brave new world ahead. 

Piers Lane AO

Praised for his ‘superb musical intelligence, sensitivity, and scintillating brilliance’ (Gramophone), London-based Australian pianist Piers Lane has a worldwide reputation as an engaging, searching and highly versatile performer, at home equally in solo, chamber and concerto repertoire. He has an extensive discography, encompassing several critically-acclaimed and award-winning recordings, and is Artistic Director of the Sydney International Piano Competition.