The German pianist and conductor Lars Vogt, who has died aged 51 of cancer, came to prominence after taking second prize at the 1990 Leeds International Piano Competition. To a repertory including Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, but centred predominantly on Romantic composers such as Brahms, Schumann, Grieg, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky, he brought exceptional sensitivity and lyricism, the wistful, restrained emotional register of Brahms’s late pieces suiting him particularly well.
Though ceding first prize to Artur Pizarro in Leeds, Vogt impressed with his mercurial, witty Haydn and an account of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition that combined subtlety and grandeur. In the concerto finale, his mature performance of the Schumann heralded a player of remarkable eloquence and unaffected charisma.
He went on to play with many leading conductors and orchestras all over the world. An especially prestigious appointment was that of the first ever pianist in residence to the Berlin Philharmonic for the 2003–04 season.
He was also a keen chamber music partner, teaming up frequently with players such as Christian and Tanja Tetzlaff, Truls Mørk, Sabine Meyer and Sarah Chang, and with singers including Thomas Quasthoff, Ian Bostridge and Julian Pregardien.
In 1998 he co-founded with his first wife, the Russian composer Tatiana Komarova, his own chamber music festival, Spannungen (“Excitements”), located in a converted art nouveau hydroelectric power station in the village of Heimbach near Cologne. Many outstanding recordings emanated from performances there and he remained artistic director until his death.
Simon Rattle, who conducted the Schumann concerto in Leeds and his first two recordings (Schumann/Grieg and Beethoven’s first concerto), remained his mentor, prophesying at the time: “In 10 years you will be a conductor. You have a conductor’s brain.” And indeed in due course Vogt took his place regularly on the podium, without relinquishing that at the keyboard.
He was appointed music director of the Royal Northern Sinfonia from 2015 for a five-year tenure, becoming principal artistic partner from 2020. Beginning in the 2020–21 season he also served as music director for the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris – the first French orchestra to boast full gender equality. That contract, initially for three years, was recently extended to June 2025.
In the earlier stages of his career, he was an EMI recording artist, making discs with the Berlin Philharmonic under Claudio Abbado and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Rattle. Latterly he recorded for the Finnish label Ondine: the complete Beethoven and Brahms concertos directed from the keyboard, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, played with verve and neat articulation but featuring subtle and unexpected touches, and a disc of Janáček works that won him the Opus Klassik award for best solo piano disc of the year in 2021.
Contemporary composers whose works he premiered include Thomas Larcher, Erkki-Sven Tüür, Kryštof Mařatka and Volker David Kirchner.
Born in Düren, in North Rhine-Westphalia, he was the youngest of three children of an engineer (who as a young man had funded his studies by playing professional football for his local team) and his wife. Lars learned the piano from the age of six and studied at what is now the Hochschule für Musik, Theater und Medien Hannover. His teacher was the distinguished pedagogue Karl-Heinz Kämmerling, whose students also numbered Igor Levit and Alice Sara Ott. After Kämmerling’s death in 2012, Vogt succeeded him as professor of piano at the Hochschule.
He made the first of 14 appearances at the BBC Proms in 1992, playing the Grieg concerto with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Mark Elder. He went on to play with all the major British orchestras, the Leipzig Gewandhaus, Royal Concertgebouw, Vienna Philharmonic and many more. Concerned about the state of music education, he established a programme in Germany called Rhapsody in School, in which he and other professional musicians visited schools to interact with youngsters, the aim being to inspire and to forge connections.
After his marriage to Komarova ended, he married the Polish violinist Anna Reszniak. Diagnosed with cancer of the throat and liver last year, he continued to play throughout his treatment (he was fortunate to have an upright piano in the cancer ward and a grand in the palliative ward). He talked movingly in an interview about his family and the composers who gave him the greatest solace in his condition: Brahms, Mozart and Bach – “the three composers who feel most important to me now”.
Of Brahms he said that what spoke to him most profoundly at this juncture was that the composer, who had no children of his own, was nevertheless able to enter the world of childhood with the “sweetly fragile major” chords that would follow a passage of darker colours.
“The narrator says”, he continued, “‘You have lots of suffering and sadness ahead of you – but for now, just go to sleep,’ and it returns to a lullaby. It’s an adjustment of perspective – not a complete identification with childhood, but from an adult perspective – from a person who’s seen a lot.”
Vogt is survived by Anna and by three children.
• Lars Vogt, pianist and conductor, born 8 September 1970; died 5 September 2022