Breaking: Tchaikovsky piano winner is French but the result is cheesy

Breaking: Tchaikovsky piano winner is French but the result is cheesy


norman lebrecht

June 27, 2019

Alexandre Kantorow, 22, has been declared winner of the major prize of the Tchaikovsky Competition. He has a Russian teacher, Rena Shereshevskaya, and he impressed the audience above all others, especially in the Tchaikovsky second concerto.

UPDATE: What we learned about the Russians at Tchaikovsky 2019.

Joint second were the Russian Dmitry Shishkin and the Japanese Mao Fujita.

Joint third were the Russians Melnikov and Emilyanov and the American Kenneth Broberg.

Fourth was the Chinese An Tianxu, whose performance was disabled by an administrative screw-up that made the process a laughing-stock. He was awarded an unscheduled special prize ‘for courage and restraint’.

The contest’s credibility was undermined by the early elimination of the Russian favourite Alexander Malofeev on questionable grounds. The incident with An Tianxu cast further  doubt on the process and the final sharing of prizes reflects no credit on the weak chairman, Denis Matsuev.

The contest appears to be reverting to the bad old days of Soviet judge-rigging.

POSTCRIPT: This post was written within minutes of the announcement. We have made some morning-after adjustments to add balance and reflection to the results.


  • Peter says:

    Alexander Malofeev a favourite? Says who exactly?

    I had no idea he was considered a favourite by anyone, but I thought he was absolutely terrible and was not surprised at all he didnt make it to the semi-finals. Everything was played way too fast and very mechanically. Pretty obvious call in my opinion.

    The winner is indeed the right one this time around and I think no one will contest it. Good job by the jury overall!

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      I thought Malofeev’s performance was glib and rushed. Not impressed with him this time round.

    • Richard Bloesch says:

      I think the Russian state has always favored Alexander Malofeev. He was a child prodigy and played amazing recitals at a young age. Recently he took second place at the International China Piano Competition. You can hear quite a remarkable performance of him playing the Rachmaninoff 3rd concerto on youtube. But I agree that his first round recital at the Tchaikovsky 16th piano competition was quite poor. It was mechanical and too swift. The last movement of the Beethoven sonata was hair-raisingly unmusical.

      Richard Bloesch

    • Robert Bordeaux says:

      Unlike many of his performances on youtube, in the Tchaik. competition he looked very uncomfortable, and at the end leaving the stage, looked angry. I guess he didn’t feel good about his performance? but incredibly talented.

  • Anonymous says:

    I don’t know what you mean by ‘weak chairman’.
    Mister Matsuev is a fantastic pianist. You will agree, if you have ever heard his playing.

    Otherwise I don’t care about competitions so can’t comment on anything else

  • Meal says:

    To me, this is apparently just Matsuev bashing without musical grounds. Yes, An Tianxu was in disadvantage. But what else could have been done to solve the mistake which just happened? There is no, really no sign of back to Soviet times. Based on previous rounds Tianxu was not a favourite. What makes me really angry is that the Matsuev bashing is unfair to Kantarov. His Brahms was exceptional. There will be always different opinions who should have been first – in any competition. But even if you preferred someone else to be first, you will have to admit that the decision to select Kantarov seems reasonable. I don’t care about Matsuev (he will survive your bashing anyhow), but I care for a young talent.

  • anon says:

    It’d be a lot classier just to congratulate the winner, however unfortunate it was for An, instead of making sophomoric French puns (cheesy??) about the results.

  • Bachmaninoff says:

    Great decision from the jury to award so many 2nd and 3rd prizes! The level was phenomenal and it’s only fair to reward several ex aequo awards in this case.

    Kantorow was amazing in his marathon of Tchaikovsky 2 and Brahms 2. Fujita played wonderful in especially the 2nd round. Shishkin has been great throughout the competition.

  • MusicBear88 says:

    When I was in my teens I participated in a number of young artist competitions sponsored by community orchestras and teachers’ associations. I won a couple, came in second in a couple, and didn’t place in a couple. But none of them were particularly well run and all of them had some kind of odd story.

    When I won one concerto competition, I had to wait almost a full year before I actually got to play with the orchestra, and when I went to the first rehearsal, they were playing the wrong piece (Beethoven C Major instead of Beethoven c minor).

    When I tied for second in one competition, the other second place winner was asked to play with the orchestra as well, but I wasn’t. I could have cared less about what place I was; I just wanted to perform.

    Another time, my mother told me that they announced the top three as soon as I went into the audition room, before I could have played a single note. I stopped doing competitions after that.

  • Anon says:

    If the competition has been rigged, why would it make sense for the Frenchman to win???

    • sillis says:

      French winner supported by French company The CEO of deftly hugged Kantorow backstage after the performance in the final…

      • Robert Groen says:

        Deftly hugging? I must try that sometime…..

      • Keybawd says:

        I couldn’t stand Kantorow’s slowing down at each and every lyrical section. It was an irritating mannerism which destroyed the architecture of the movement. The only one of those pianists I want to hear again is Broberg.

    • E says:

      The best pianists were eliminated in the second round. This is why. I couldn’t understand decisions of jury at all. I couldn’t understand why Sara Daneshpour didn’t make it, for example. I listened to most contestants. I liked Anna Geniushene too. There were others. I lost interest in the whole process. Competitions now produce people with no individuality . This is why it is very boring to go to concerts now.

  • tom says:

    Actually, I think they got it right (much to my surprise)! The only thing I’d have done differently was to place Alexey Melnikov as another 2nd place winner, rather than 3rd place.

  • Igor says:

    An awful article.
    The winner totally deserved to win – and he is not Russian. Old Soviet judge – rigging??? Seriously?!
    By the way – which winner of Tchaikovsky comp in the past was unworthy of first prize?

  • Mark says:

    I have to say I was impressed with Kantorow’s playing. Not technically perfect, perhaps (but these competitions are nerve-racking, at any case) but for once, he had a deep felling for and an understanding of the music he was playing.

  • Olga says:

    I’m very proud of the final results!
    all finalist are very good but Kantorow is a major and unique talent!
    Congrats to him and his wonderful teacher!

  • sillis says:

    I unfortunately have to agree that Matsuev is not up to the game. His playing is extremely technical and – I rarely say this, but in his case I cannot avoid it – superficial. I am not saying it’s not entertaining to listen to him. But he is exactly the kind of pianist you do not want to have on such a jury… my personal opinion.

  • Rohan says:

    I was not impressed by Malofeev and while there may have been shades of promise, he has a long way to go before he is considered a complete artist at this level.

    I was extremely impressed by Mao Fujita and was hoping he would win (2nd place is still a very good showing, though). Perhaps, playing the Tchaikovsky 2nd worked in favour of Kantorow and helped him stand out.

    An Tianxu’s incident was very unfortunate, but I agree with the writer above that there was nothing much Matsuev or the rest of the jury could have done about it. Perhaps, at an institutional level, the Competition organisers could lay down announcement guidelines being bilingual for everything.

    • Cortot says:

      I agree. I’ve actually been following Malofeev for years on YouTube and he was a favorite of mine going into this competition. With that said, I was disappointed in his performances and even though surprised by his elimination early on ultimately objectively it was the right call. He clearly had the best technique in the competition but his musicality was off. He’s only 17 and has plenty time to mature. I really liked Fujita as well especially after his perfect Mozart Sonata performance. I was really surprised how well he played it at this level. The rest of his performances were flawless as well but perhaps lacked the excitement of the others. He made playing the Rach 3 look easy. All the finalist were outstanding pianists and I agree with the results. An played well but wouldn’t have garnered top prize even without the unfortunate event which will be a classic video. He played the last movement of the Tschaikovsky too fast. If you watch Broberg just before he plays he exaggeratedly mouths “Rachmaninoff?” to the conductor and smiles.

      • Robert Groen says:

        Yes, Broberg had a bit of fun there. Didn’t stop him from playing his Rachmaninoff very well. I liked him.

        • Keybawd says:

          I too enjoyed Broberg’s finals performances. Original without being different for the sake of it.

  • Henry says:

    These horrible competitions where musicians are paraded around to do musical tricks are just too awful. We are outlawing animals in circuses, but we still treat young musicians like playing monkeys.

  • Ray says:

    Come on! Kantorow is a worthy winner. He took a chance with the less popular Tchaik 2 and an even bigger gamble with the Brahms 2, which is as difficult as all hell to bring off well. He acquitted himself superbly on both. And guess what? He’s the first ever winner to have played Tchaik 2 instead of Tchaik 1.

    What’s more he sneaked in chamber music in the 2nd movement of the Tchaik 2 and the 3rd movement of the Brahms 2. Great strategy!

    Fujita demonstrated consistent charming musicality throughout and his technique was so fluid that he made it appear that playing the piano at this level was a piece of cake. Which it is definitely not.

    But Shishkin over Yemelyanov? Really?

    Broberg disappointed in the end but you can’t win them all. At least he is a laureate in both the Cliburn and the Tchaikovsky.

    And the debacle involving An? The less said the better. The organisers must make sure it never happens again.

  • Forley says:

    Special Prize for courage and restraint…..what a sarcastic prize to An Tianxu.

    If i didn’t miss something the committee have not apologized to him.

    • Pat says:

      Of course they will not apologize to Tianxu. That would make them appear wrong.
      Kind of remind me of that man in the White House who never admit he’s wrong.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      Huh? The jury agreed something went wrong, and invited him to play again. What do you want the jury to do? Immolate themselves on stage?

  • Frank Cooper says:

    Never having heard of Mr. Kantorow, I watched his Tchaikowsky & Brahms with no preconceptions. From the first, his intensely musical performances held me rapt. His total command of the two, very-demanding scores struck home forcibly – as did the complete cooperation of his partner on the podium. There was not a bead of perspiration on the young man even by the end, nor evidence of any loss of executive facility. That he is a product of French training seemed remarkable, there being in recent memory no pianist of comparable achievement. He deserved the top prize, surely.

  • Nico says:

    I think this is unfair. The An Tianxu issue was an honest mistake, and I don’t think he would’ve placed higher anyway (my opinion). Kantarowe had an exceptional final round. I just wish they hadn’t awarded the first three prizes to 6 people. They just played for 1-1.5 hours to try and distinguish themselves…and they all get lumped together equally?

    • TrifonovFan582 says:

      I dont think we heard Tianxu play the concerto under normal circumstances. Therefore, none of you can honestly say he shouldn’t have placed higher.
      The Competition’s grand prize has a lot to do with how a performer coordinates with the orchestra while performing the Tchaikovsky Concerto and another Concerto of the performer’s choice.
      For that reason alone, this contest has been a total disaster.

  • Pat says:

    I think this is the least impressive Tchaikovsky Competition I’ve seen in 30 years. I’ve seen more compelling performances(both technically and artistically) from some amateur competitions.
    Perhaps the biased judging is scaring away the best pianists in the World.

    • Tim says:

      Really? Were we watching the same pianists? Please show me some names who you class as ‘better’. I doubt many from the recent past, including some on the jury, could have performed comparably.

      • norman lebrecht says:

        Nikolayev, Malofeev, some others who were eliminated in the first round.

        • Peter says:

          I confess I’m a bit baffled by this insistence in Malofeev.

          I had never heard his name before, so I guess I was as unbiased as it gets when I listened to his first round recital, which I genuinely thought was very poor and far below the standard we’ve come to expect from an International Competition this caliber. Other posters seem to agree.

          So allow me to ask Sir, have you listened to his first round? If you did, did you find his playing superior to other contestants who made it to the finals? And if you didn’t, do you think that being labeled a child prodegy and already having established a name be enough to give you a free pass?

          • steven holloway says:

            I too am baffled. It rather makes one wonder whether pots aren’t calling kettles black around here.

        • Ray says:

          Malofeev? His Beethoven was completely out of control. And someone has to teach the young lad to stop grimacing as he plays. It looks as if he’s being tortured.

  • Dan oren says:

    Rena Shereshevskaia is a French citizen, she has been living (and teaching) in France for almost 40 years…

  • Dinosaurs says:

    If not the “weak” Gergiev and Matsuev, Malofeev wouldn’t have a career at all and might not have even made it through the selection round. They both were extremely supportive to this young talent, who just messed up his performance on the 1st round.

  • Anonymous says:

    I’m pretty sure the winners haven’t been announced yet, and if I’m correct, then you should be ashamed of your website

  • Tim says:

    Your comment does you no credit. I watched most of the pianists in most rounds and certainly the semis and finals. The standard was higher than ever and the finalists simply displayed more mature playing than Malofeev who is still a kid.
    The mix up of pieces was most unfortunate but i think you need to show evidence if you think everything was rigged or you simply look as bad as those you are criticising.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Not everything was rigged. Kantorow is a promising performer who won over the audience. Much else was questionable.

    • Pat says:

      Past great pianists…
      Cliburn, Ashkenazy, Sokolov, Kraiev, Gutierrez, Myung-whun Chung, Gavrilov, Pietnev, Berezovsky, Kemph, Matsuec, Jin Ju, Tifonov, Yeol Eum Son, Seong-Jin Cho, Romnaovsky, Masleev, George Li, Debargue

  • Robert von Bahr says:

    Dear Norman,
    promising? He has fulfilled all the promises years ago. All of his three SACD:s so far have got plentiful awards, Editor’s choices, Gramophone, Diapasons d’Or, CHOCs, Supersonics (Pizzicato), Record of the Year, France, Critics’ Choice of the Year (Revelation) in France, I could go on for a very long time. Those critics do have ears, you know, as do you. But he is singled out, every time, in the face of international competition.
    He is an exceptional musician, totally serious about music, and the nicest kid on the block I have met in a very long time. He is a longterm exclusive BIS Artist, signed up years ago, long before any competitions (which makes me an interested party, I know, but we also have ears…).

    I know that you are sceptical, to say the least, about competitions in general, and you may often be completely right, but I do beg of you not to cast any doubts about the genius that is Alexandre Kantorow. His teacher has been living in France twice as long as Alexandre has lived, why the slur about being Russian? As an interested party I listened to everything, and I would have had the integrity to say so, if I didn’t consider him a worthy winner. But he was, and he is genuinely worthy of this honour!

    Robert von Bahr, CEO, BIS Records

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Points taken, Robert.

    • Robert von Bahr says:

      12 people have found my comment above objectionable, and 14 likewise, when Norman Lebrecht agreed with it. Since I try to keep official discourse polite, fair and to the point, it would interest me to know what – really – is objectionable about it. Don’t you agree with my findings, or the way to present them? If you don’t want to answer in this Forum, you can write directly to me – – I’ll keep it private.

    • Pat says:

      Alex may be a nice kid, but whomever hosts his page on YouTube blocks or deletes any criticism to him.
      Many people have complained about that. Not on his channel, of course.

  • Nick says:

    There is no question that Kantorow is a major talent. It seems, with the very unfortunate exception of An, “The Tchaik.” went rather well for pianists this time. Kantorow seems to be more mature musically than his colleagues – other winners – and he is somewhat younger, say, than Broberg, who showed phenomenal power in Barber and Medtner. The Jury did a surprisingly good job under Matsuev’s chairmanship.
    Quite unexpected, but true!

  • Fransi Phillips says:

    Someone made a mistake, as if mistakes never happen in the West. An Tianxu had an option to repeat his performance, which he declined. Why don’t you mention that?

    Everyone has favorites. Malofeev seems to have been yours, but he wasn’t mine or the jury’s. Why would that remind you of the Soviets?

  • Ronald says:

    I have an idea who’s the true laughing stock here, Mr. Lebrecht. Please don’t step out of your comfort zone (ie music gossip).

  • Ethan says:

    It was almost MUST piece to play Tchaik1 or Rach 3rd (like Chopin 1 in the Chopin competition..) against Tchaik 2 or Brahms 2(which has been almost banned pieces to play in the competitions. So definitely I admire him or his teacher who has punched to the Competition clichy music style. And I guess now that the musical Jurys also would have dedicated for it as well.

    The Point is that Kantorow made these musics now popular again. And that is what The real musician has to let it reborned the forgotten or unfreshed treasures. So It must be deserved for the 1st Prize indeed

    • Neil says:

      Rach 3, Prokofiev 3, Tchaik 1 should be banned in competitions!

      • TuttiFlutie says:

        Hear hear. Speaking as a flutist I totally agree with you. Sick to death of Tchaik 1. It’s a nightmare for flute. To have to play it once per concert is enough. To have to do it over and over again is torture. That hideous 1/16th note high passage in the last mvmnt. is basically unplayable. Fake fingerings, harmonics, whatever, it’s always awkward. Everyone always wants to do play Tchaik 1 at competitions, and pianists just keep taking that last mvmnt faster and faster, making it a sisyphean challenge for any flutist.

        I felt a lot better when I heard that it didn’t come out too well for any of the orch. flutists accompanying the piano candidates at this year’s Tchaik. Live streamed authentic Russians and they couldn’t do it either.

        Tchaik PC 2 is not a great piece orchestrally, but at least it’s a new and different type of discomfort.

  • Patrick from France says:

    I enjoyed watching those perfomances, even Malofeev’s. I see some of you know how and how fast to play Beethoven or Tchaikovsky. I t looks like there is only one way to perform piano pieces. Can’t we say today that some of our well known and beloved performers would not have passed the first round (Horowitz, Gould…) of this competition? In your comments, the standard way of performing seems the most appreciated. If a performer dares to show a piece in a different light, even with intelligence and ingenuity, he’ll be considered as a bad pianist. The way Malofeev is considered here is unacceptable. Doesn’t Martha Argerich perform fast? Congratulations to All those high level performers !

    • Cortot says:

      Hey, I was and still am a Malofeev fan. I wrote on another board that he would win the Tschaikovsky when he was in the First Chinese International Piano Competition, (he got second place there). Alas, I admit there was a lack of musicality in his performances here. Argerich plays fast, sure, but her Tchaikovsky, Chopin and Rachmaninov concerti are still full of nuance and style as well as excitement and beauty. Malofeev is but 17, and will no doubt be a fine musician one day when experience and maturity settles in.

  • Michel says:

    Malofeev was eleminated on musical reasons. His show was just horrible (think of the massacre of the Appasionata !).

  • Rgiarola says:

    Do you think Malofeev is going to be a new case of Pogorelich/Chopin_Competition? Poor Đặng Thái Sơn. He got the competition, but not the glory.

  • Nijinsky says:

    Despite everything, to simply listen to Kantorow’s playing of Tchaikovsky’s amazing piano concerto, that you hardly hear enough of, that’s a real blessing.
    Just to hear the music of that man, who went through so much, and now has his life story denied by the Russian government.

    It seems everyone is going on about everything but that, again.

    I’m not condoning anything by that though. This IS a competition, one of the many, and to me they seem to be part of the racket seeing who has the most zeal to turn the romantic period concertos into a escapist sensual thrill, along with the pampered lifestyle of being a “world class” soloist and advertising the luxuries and glamor involved to sustain a personality cult and media attention.

    OK, I’m exaggerating a bit, but not too much.

    But in the meantime, while all the concertos exploited from the romantic period are being warped almost out of context, there’s a grievous neglect in nurturing the creative resources that allowed them to come into being, although I’m thankful there’s no big name musical composition competitions. Although I have to laugh a bit when I imagine the Hollywood style bombastic concertos that might emerge from such affairs.

    In the meantime, I feel truly loved (by life, by “God” if you will) to hear Tchaikovsky’s unheard concerto performed by an amazing pianist, because it’s music. Is that enough, or does it have to be adorned by personality cults along with all style of acclaim and glamor and the adrenaline of winning?

  • Can’t agree about Malofeef (as being “favorite???”) His Appassionata had no relief from intensity.. He has a ways to go. Kantorow deserved the Gold in every way. And the Grand Prix. Is it my understanding that he was awarded the Gergiev prize of 100K???