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Aged 95, small in stature and large in presence, Dame Fanny Waterman remains an indomitable force, proud that she is known as ‘Field Marshal Fanny’. Alas, what could have been a reflective and humble memoir (humble in the face of music, the transcendental subject that she professes) is marred by a relentlessly self-congratulatory tone. This book is far more about Fanny Waterman and Leeds (her place of birth and the competition she founded are synonymous) than it is about music.

The start of it all was more than propitious. How well I recall the sight and sound of nine-year-old Wendy Waterman (Dame Fanny’s niece) led onto the stage of the Royal Festival Hall by Sir Malcolm Sargent to give an astonishingly assured, fresh and articulate performance of the Bach D minor Concerto. Later came Alan Schiller and, above all, Michael Roll, both exhibiting gifts that had clearly been meticulously and, indeed, ruthlessly honed.

I say ruthlessly, because it is a sad truth that ‘over-teaching’ can lead to a psychological imbalance: when questioned, virtually all of Waterman’s students (those who survived such homely invective as ‘Don’t dump it down like a sack of potatoes’ or ‘You’ve got no quality to your sound’, etc) later found themselves struggling to progress beyond the obvious path in order to achieve their own individuality.

Waterman’s observation that a teacher doesn’t over-teach, but instead ‘he or she should guide and teach a pupil to their individuality’, is clearly alien to her own imposing dogmatism. It is therefore unsurprising that few if any of her students  advanced to convincing international careers. Truly great teaching allows for a natural rather than forced blossoming.

Much of My Life In Music traces a  journey from humble beginnings to an eagerly sought celebrity status. Stung by  descriptions  of her as a ‘local piano teacher’, and by slighting references to her father being ‘in trade’, Waterman found an alternative route to fame via her remarkable creation, the Leeds International Piano Competition. Yet Leeds’ glory days (the event coincidentally hit gold with Radu Lupu and Murray Perahia) are long past, and the majority of first-prize winners have sunk without trace.

It should be pointed out that My Life In Music is leavened with flashes of charm, humour and sadness; but Waterman’s strident declaration, ‘I say what I mean, and I mean what I say’ topples easily into bluntness and aggression. Ready phrases such as ‘a woman can play like a man, but a man can never play like a woman’ are touched with absurdity, guaranteed to be provocative and appeal to the musically uninitiated.

To say that Leeds is the gold standard by which other competitions are measured is simply untrue. Firstly, the finals take place in a hall with an unacceptable acoustic. Secondly, a jury should be motivated by genuine musical concerns  rather than a blatant quid pro quo approach: you invite me to your competition and I will consider whether you are sufficiently ‘eminent’ (a favourite Waterman word) to join us at Leeds.

The Leeds Piano Competition is certainly far from negligible, but in the long term it is surely peripheral.

BRYCE MORRISON Read the full review on Agora Classica


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