The titanic Tchaikovsky test

Daniil Trifonov
The Times

By Richard Morrison

The Tchaikovsky Competition, held in Russia every four years, has always been a titanic test for young performers

When Valery Gergiev added the International Tchaikovsky Competition to his portfolio of musical empires, he promised to clean it up and wrench it into the 21st century. Perestroika was certainly needed. The Tchaikovsky, held in Russia every four years, has always been a titanic test for young performers from around the world who enter its four categories (violin, cello, voice and piano). Each must prepare reams of solo material and three concertos for a gladiatorial contest extended over three weeks and held in front of ferociously savvy Russian audiences in an atmosphere of unremitting tension. “It’s like War and Peace, without the peace,” a Russian friend quipped. And once the punters have picked their favourite the partisan frenzy in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire can be scarier than Centre Court at Wimbledon.

But in recent years the Tchaikovsky has been tarnished, with jury members blatantly voting for their own pupils. “It became a contest between professors in the Moscow Conservatoire,” Gergiev said last week. So he took half of it away from Moscow, dispatching the violinists and singers to St Petersburg, and swept away the biased teachers among the judges. Instead, he invited the great stars of classical music. Anne-Sophie Mutter and Yuri Bashmet were on the violin jury; half a dozen former winners, including our own Barry Douglas and Peter Donohoe, judged pianists. The cello jury ranged from the composer Penderecki to Clive Gillinson, boss of Carnegie Hall. And you could have dream-cast several Verdi operas from the voice jury, led by Renata Scotto.

“When Valery asks, you don’t say no,” Douglas said. Gergiev also imported a new management, new rules and an “incorruptible” voting system from the Tchaikovsky’s rival: the Van Cliburn Piano Competition in the US. He also persuaded the man himself — Van Cliburn, the lanky Texan pianist who won the first Tchaikovsky in 1958 at the age of 23 — to make his first return to the competition. All last week the legendary Cliburn was mobbed by adoring women, mostly young enough to be his grandchildren. And his press conference, held on the roof of one of Moscow’s swanky hotels, completely upstaged the Hollywood stars gathered for the Moscow Film Festival. “Who is this old guy?” John Malkovich is reputed to have asked in amazement.

Gergiev’s unrefusable invitations also extended to the top of Russian society. Government ministers mingled with oligarchs during the final stages, where competitors were accompanied by the top three Russian orchestras. Putin was at the opening gala. It’s hard to imagine classical music creating such a stir in any country except Russia. But even in Moscow things are changing. The “new Russians” flaunting their wealth in the indescribably expensive watering-holes have little interest in high culture. Gergiev’s achievement was to make attendance at the Tchaikovsky seem socially essential, even to them.

He also turned the event into an internet phenonemon. Every note in every round was webcast: no small achievement when seven venues were used simultaneously in two cities 500 miles apart. What’s more, viewers could vote online or by phone, X Factor style, for their favourites. The results of this poll were given almost as much prominence as the juries’ verdicts.

But it was the latter that caused the rows, or “polite discussions”, as Gergiev described them in the press conference he was forced to call to answer the press outcry about the piano jury’s decisions. The Russian critics, and a faction of the audience, were upset by the elimination in early rounds of two Russian pianists: the inspired but inconsistent Eduard Kunz and Alexander Lubyantsev.

And they certainly made the jury aware of their feelings. “I was walking to a restaurant with Michel Béroff [a fellow juror],” said Douglas. “A woman followed us, chanting ‘Lubyantsev, Lubyantsev’. I found that creepy. And after we announced the finalists there were cries of ‘Shame on you’.” The Moscow critics even muttered about giving their own, alternative awards — though, in the great independent tradition of the Russian press, they decided they should ask Gergiev for permission. Unsurprisingly, he said no.

What riled these critics was the suspicion that the jury was eliminating Moscow Conservatoire-trained pianists in revenge for the favouritism shown to homegrown candidates in the bad old days. That two of the five finalists were Russian was deemed irrelevant because they were the wrong sort of Russians. Both (including the eventual winner, the 20-year-old Daniil Trifonov) study in the West.

That wasn’t the only controversy. The new rules forbade juries from discussing competitors among themselves before voting (to stop one strong figure exerting undue influence) and stated that a first prize would definitely be awarded in each category. Yet the violin jury did the opposite. They conferred, then decided that no one was good enough to get a first prize.

Such decisions are always subjective. And you had to be in the Great Hall (now superbly restored to its Tsarist marble glory) to feel the astonishing tension around the piano competition. The feisty Korean Yeol Eum Son must have felt like Manchester United playing away to Barcelona when she followed Trifonov in the finals. Yet, to my ears she gave the more exciting interpretation of the mandatory Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto: a blistering reading that left me gasping. I would have given her gold, not silver.

What about the British competitors? Well, forget that. There wasn’t a single one in any category (though two of the five piano finalists — a Ukrainian and a Russian — are studying in London at the Royal College of Music). Why not? After all, in past decades British pianists from Ogdon to Kempf have done brilliantly in the Tchaikovsky. I’d suggest three reasons. First, modern British teenagers don’t have the desire to win these big competitions, nor the work ethic (or fanatical parents) to make them good enough to compete in such repertoire. Second, we are paying for decades of patchy or non-existent music education. By contrast, the Koreans did brilliantly in all categories.

And third, the Tchaikovsky’s damaged reputation may have put off potential pianists from the West (there were few French, German or American competitors either). If so, this year’s competition should supply reassurance. The juries might not have got it all right, but they weren’t bent. The musicmaking, especially from pianists and cellists, was breathtaking. And I will eat my hat, or an Aeroflot inflight meal — whichever is the less tasty — if there aren’t glittering careers ahead for half a dozen of the finalists. Besides those already mentioned I would pick out the Korean bass Jongmin Park, (just 24, yet already with a voice like a cavern), his soprano compatriot Sun Young Seo, and a brilliant if wayward 18-year-old Belorussian cellist, Ivan Karizna, as names to watch. sWhatever its defects, the Tchaikovsky is back — once again the most thrilling music competition on the planet.