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Taek Gi Lee playing Rachmaninov's 3rd Piano Concerto Photograph: John Cole

And the winner is…

At the end of the semi-finals of the Hastings International Piano Concerto Competition the generally accepted view seemed to be that one of the two South Koreans – Yekwon Sunwoo and Taek Gi Lee – was likely to be winning the prize, writes Antony Mair.  

It came as no surprise that they were two of the three finalists.  Marcin Koziak, from Poland, was the third finalist, but was thought to have only an outside chance of coming out top.  Of the two South Koreans, it’s fair to say that Yekwon Sunwoo, with his considerable stage presence and the greater maturity that comes with being 25 as opposed to 17, was thought to be marginally the more likely contender.

The final was made the more interesting since both Yekwon Sunwoo and Taek Gi Lee were playing Rachmaninov’s 3rd Piano Concerto.  I invariably think of this as the “Rack 3”, after John Gielgud’s repeated warnings in the movie Shine that this concerto had been the downfall of many a pianist – as it proved to be for David Helfgott, the main character.

Audience at the White Rock Theatre Photograph: John Cole

Yekwon Sunwoo was first off the starting block on Saturday night.  Starting slightly nervously, he failed to convey much expression in the first part of the first movement, but gradually got into his stride.  The Rack 3 is an immensely showy piece with a series of solos and cadenzas.  Yekwon Sunwoo’s performance reminded me very much of a mountaineer in the Alps, climbing one height after the other, only to find another one beyond.  It was technically brilliant, and the final movement was a showstopper that brought tears to the eyes.  He was followed by Marcin Koziak playing Tchaikovsky’s 1st Piano Concerto, which I found competent but a little unmoving after the tumult of Rachmaninov.

Taek Gi Lee receiving his prize from Dame Fanny Waterman Photograph: John Cole

When Taek Gi Lee stepped onto the stage I had little fear of him collapsing in the manner of David Helfgott. But I was totally unprepared for the ease with which he played – where Yekwon Sunwoo had been a mountaineer, Taek Gi Lee seemed to be taking a walk in the park.  From the moment he first touched the keyboard, there was an astonishing fluidity and lyricism in his playing that captivated everyone in the theatre, bringing a number of members of the audience to their feet.

I wondered whether my judgment was affected by bias – Paul had been ferrying Taek Gi to his rehearsal venue earlier in the week as well as on the Saturday and had got to know him a little.  But it became clear that everyone – including the judges – was of the same mind.  Taek Gi Lee goes away with the first prize and my hope that his prodigious talent is carefully nurtured to enable him to retain a place he has now earned on the world stage.

Republished with kind permission from Postcards from Hastings.

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Posted 19:56 Sunday, Mar 9, 2014 In: Music & Sound

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