RUSSIAN Sofya Gulyak became the first female winner in the 48-year history of the Leeds International Pianoforte Competition at the weekend.
Miss Gulyak, 29, from Kazan, in the Republic of Tatarstan, triumphed at the glittering finale of the 16th competition, held in Leeds Town Hall on Saturday night after an international jury spent three weeks listening to 69 entrants from 45 countries.
She performed Brahms's Concerto no. 1 in D minor with the Hall Orchestra conducted by Sir Mark Elder. Miss Gulyak was awarded the Princess Mary Gold Medal and 15,000 donated by the Audrey and Stanley Burton Charitable Trust.
The first prize also brings her a packed programme of prestigious international concert engagements that will see her play with some of the world's greatest orchestras.
Miss Gulyak, who is currently studying in Italy, now plans to move to London next month.
Miss Gulyak joins a list of winners of the "Leeds" who have gone on to international stardom, including Michael Roll, Radu Lupu, Murray Perahia and Andras Schiff.
Yesterday she said: "I am so happy to have won, I can't believe it, because so many great pianists were here. Every young pianist knows this competition is full of opportunities, it gives a lot, and it is very prestigious.
"I had played some of the programme before, and I practised them a lot to be sure. I just tried to be ready, but you can never be sure that you will pass, and the standard of all these pianists was very high.
"I talked to my mum and my teachers, and they were so happy for me. I still can't believe it."
The competition's patron, Dame Janet Baker, paid tribute to its founder and artistic director, Dame Fanny Waterman, saying: "It is one of the greatest competitions in the world – we like to think it is the greatest. It stands at such a high level because of the ideals and ethics of our chairman."
The "Leeds" was established in 1961 by Dame Fanny and Marion Thorpe.
Yesterday, all six finalists performed at a gala recital at the University of Leeds. The 17th Leeds International Pianoforte Competition will be held in 2012.
Alexej Gorlatch (Ukraine)
Silver Medal and 12,000 (The Marjorie and Arnold Ziff Charitable Foundation)
Alessandro Taverna (Italy)
Bronze Medal and 7,000 (The Geoffrey de Keyser Memorial Award donated by Sir Christopher Walford)
David Kadouch (France)
5,000 (The David Rymer Charitable Trust)
Rachel Cheung (China)
4,000 (Lady Solti)
Jianing Kong (China)
3,500 (The Robert Tebb Trust)
BBC4 will broadcast six programmes recorded at the competition starting on September 18.
Safe hands, virtuosity and immense talent
Competitions can often tell you more about the jury than the competitors, with those who sat in judgment in Leeds giving preference to the safe pair of hands of the 29-year-old Russian, Sofya Gulyak, who had offered a very ordinary account of the Brahms's First Piano Concerto for her first prize.
They must have remembered her performances in the earlier rounds, with her big powerhouse and virtuoso playing demonstrating awesome strength in music by Liszt and Prokofiev.
But if the young Frenchman David Kadouch looks at the history of the competition he will see Leeds frequently get the result all wrong, for he is a pianist of immense talent, his subtlety, elegance and myriads of tonal colours being by far the greatest joys I have had in the event, his fourth place doing him scant justice.
The Italian Alessandro Taverna might also have felt short-changed being placed third after some magical playing in the semi-final. For the 17-year-old Rachel Cheung it was a story of choosing the wrong work. Had she played Prokofiev or Bartok the result could have been different from her fifth prize.
Jianing Kong should have been more than happy with sixth place, with the second place going to yet another safe pair of hands from Ukrainian Alexej Gorlatch.