Pianist

First Person

Peter Quantrill talks to Russian pianist Anna Tsybuleva about life after her victory at Leeds

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Fashions change for competitio­n repertoire as in every other walk of life. Beethoven’s Fourth, Schumann and Prokofiev’s Third were once the go-to concertos for aspiring gold medallists, fitting within the time-honoured half-hour template of mingled virtuosity and lyricism, with a brief shop-window to advertise slow phrasing and no danger of one’s efforts being drowned by the orchestra. By comparison, the 50-minute span of Brahms’s Second appears absurdly unsuited to setting out a young pianist’s stall, and yet two winners of major competitio­ns in the last six years have made it their signature piece: Anna Tsybuleva in Leeds in 2015 and Alexandre Kantorow in Moscow in 2019.

Talking recently to Kantorow (for the cover story of Pianist 118) and now to Tsybuleva, it becomes clear that the lure of performing the concerto was irresistib­le: both pianists have an enduring relationsh­ip with the piece stretching back much further than the expected year or two of preparatio­n. Even so, Tsybuleva had never played the Brahms with an orchestra. So she decided to make the most of the opportunit­y, despite being given the standard single, hour-long rehearsal, barely enough to top and tail. ‘Some parts we couldn’t play at all,’ she tells me: ‘We just establishe­d the tempo and mood. But Sir Mark Elder was so open and helpful. At every moment I felt his kindness and support. And the night itself was such a pleasure, from first to last note. Jury members told me afterwards: “Anna, you were so free, so relaxed, that we forgot we were on a jury.”’ We’ll find out for ourselves in September if the next Leeds winner shows such self-possession.

A journey around Brahms

The jury’s consensus over Tsybuleva was by no means shared by the critical fraternity, but she has, over the past six years, steadily put together a career and a repertoire to make the doubters eat their words, now capped by a recording of the Brahms Second which – to my ears – bears witness to a profound engagement with its many-sided nature. While still a postgradua­te student at the Moscow Conservato­ire, Tsybuleva wrote a dissertati­on on the concerto and visited the library in Hamburg to see the composer’s marked-up proof of the first edition. The eruptions of the first two movements draw from her a weight of tone and sovereign fantasy familiar from great Russian interprete­rs of years gone by: not just Richter and Gilels, but Grinberg and Davidovich. Her dancing, shaded articulati­on of the Scherzo’s Handelian central episode and the lightly worn but heartfelt affection of her rapport with the solo cellist in the Andante show Tsybuleva as a pianist of her time; acutely aware of Brahms’s own self-consciousl­y asserted place in musical history as a scholar of, and successor to, Handel and CPE Bach as well as a visionary Romantic.

At any rate, she establishe­d the warmest of relationsh­ips with her conductor for the Signum album, Ruth Reinhardt, for whom the recording also marks a notable debut. ‘It looks like a well-planned story now, but it wasn’t!’ says Tsybuleva. ‘After the competitio­n, I really wanted another opportunit­y to play the Brahms. I wanted to rehearse more, to unite with the conductor and orchestra. And I had a wonderful three days in Berlin just before the pandemic in March last year with musicians [of the DSO Berlin] who know this music inside

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