Lars Vogt, pianist who dazzled audiences with thrilling performances of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert – obituary

Lars Vogt: between chemotherapy sessions he recorded a CD of Mozart piano concertos
Lars Vogt: between chemotherapy sessions he recorded a CD of Mozart piano concertos

Lars Vogt, who has died from cancer aged 51, was a German-born pianist and conductor who captured the imagination of British audiences with a daring, some said mercurial, account of the Schumann Piano Concerto at the 1990 Leeds International Piano Competition; he came second behind the Portuguese pianist Artur Pizarro, receiving a £3,500 prize.

If missing out on first place was a disappointment, Vogt never let it show, later speaking with relief of avoiding the intensity and scrutiny that comes with winning. He described his success as a surprise, adding that his teacher had counselled against entering. “I had set myself the competition as a working goal,” he told Van magazine. “Then it just kept going and suddenly I was in the final.”

Vogt excelled in the Austro-German repertoire of the classical and romantic periods, developing an unsurpassed ability to delve with grace and dignity into the intricacies of music by Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.

He also gave thrilling accounts of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, a work he delivered with panache in the semi-finals at Leeds, and described finding solace in the works of Brahms. “He didn’t have any children, and yet he wrote in his slow movements one gorgeous lullaby after another,” the pianist mused.

Not that modern music was neglected. He gave premieres of works by several living composers including the Austrian Thomas Larcher, recorded Hindemith with the Berlin Philharmonic under Claudio Abbado and gave a glittering account of Lutoslawski’s Piano Concerto at the Edinburgh Festival in 2012 with the Cleveland Orchestra and Franz Welser-Möst.

Although Vogt continued to dazzle audiences with his interpretations at the piano, he also began making a name for himself on the podium. His first substantial conducting job came in 2015, when he was appointed music director of the Royal Northern Sinfonia in Gateshead, sometimes directing them from the keyboard.

He attributed his conducting career to Sir Simon Rattle, recalling that in the 1990s they were performing together at the Hollywood Bowl, and as they walked off stage the Englishman told him that he would be a conductor within 10 years. “It hit me like a lightning bolt, because I’d never thought of it,” said Vogt. Their connection intensified in 2003-04 when Vogt was pianist-in-residence with Rattle’s Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

Vogt: in youth his passions were politics and football
Vogt: in youth his passions were politics and football

Lars Vogt was born in Düren, in the west of Germany, on September 8 1970, the younger of three children of a professional footballer and his wife. At the age of six he began taking piano lessons with a teacher who instilled in him an enthusiasm for music of all kinds. “She felt very quickly that there was something there,” he said.

As a teenager his twin passions were politics and football. Music eventually prevailed and he studied with Karl-Heinz Kämmerling at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Hanover, though continued to follow the fortunes of his beloved Borussia Mönchengladbach.

Offers of engagements flooded in after Leeds, including a debut with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Rattle in 1992. He tackled the Grieg Piano Concerto with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Mark Elder at that year’s Proms, where one critic described him as having “breathed vibrant new life into every phrase”.

There were another 13 Proms appearances, including the opening night of the 2015 season performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 20 in D minor in which his playing was described as “forthright, big-boned and remarkably intense”.

In June 1998 Vogt founded his own chamber music festival, known as Spannungen (Tensions), in the village of Heimbach, near Cologne. The concerts, usually with friends such as the violinist Christian Tetzlaff and the cellist Tanja Tetzlaff, took place in an art-nouveau hydro-electric power station. Many were recorded for release on the CAvi and EMI labels.

Vogt also promoted music in education, starting the Rhapsody in School programme that takes musicians into schools across Germany and Austria. In 2013 he succeeded his former teacher Kämmerling at Hanover and in 2018 returned to the Leeds competition as a member of the jury that selected Eric Lu as the winner.

He kept up with his conducting and in July 2020 was appointed music director of the Chamber Orchestra of Paris, taking them on an extensive tour last season. Nevertheless he remained well grounded, describing his “musical guilty pleasure” as enjoying the Abba songs from Mamma Mia!

During treatment for cancer he continued to play the piano, reporting the presence of an upright instrument in his hospital. “Before they hook me up to the infusion I usually go upstairs and play a little for myself,” he said. Between chemotherapy sessions he recorded a CD of Mozart piano concertos with the Paris orchestra.

Lars Vogt’s first marriage, to the Russian composer Tatiana Komarova, who wrote for him a series of short, pithy studies called Tänze mit verbundenen Augen (Blindfold Dances), was dissolved. He is survived by his second wife, the violinist Anna Reszniak, and by his three children.

Lars Vogt, born September 8 1970, died September 5 2022