Final word: How Tchaikovsky Competition was won and lost

When Valery Gergiev was installed by President Putin as chair of the Tchaikovsky Competition in 2011, he installed the Van Cliburn chief Richard Rodzinski to clean up the judging cabal, introduced live streaming and generally exhumed the Augean stables to good effect. These reforms lasted all of two competitions. What we witnessed this week was a combination of dubious judgements, backroom collusions, third-world inefficiencies and Russian cover-ups. This was not a competition to write home about.

As a final word, we publish this observer’s report from a Russian-trained, Canadian pianist, Valerie Sobel:

TCHAIKOVSKY HOUSE OF CHORDS

June 27th, 2019: End Of An Era.

First came the application process, where contestants from all over the world for piano, cello, violin, voice, winds and brass had a deadline to declare their entry into one of the most prestigious music contests in the world: Tchaikovsky’s 16th International in Moscow, Russia. The deadline was mysteriously cancelled when a record number of fee-based applications poured in. Why stop the pipeline of euros when you don’t have to?

Second came the admission of Olga Volkova, Maestro Valery Gergiev’s Mariinsky concertmaster, among the violin semifinalists. (Olga didn’t make the final cut).

Gergiev is the Chairman of the Competition. For all intents and purposes, the musical puppet master of greater Russia and an undisputed influencer for all things musical in that country. Not to mention Putin’s front man.

Third came the stacked list of second-round semifinalist pianists. Russian pedigree made up 7 out of 14. Golden boy, 17 year old Alexander Malofeev of considerable talent and influential backing was a shoe-in for the second round, with all but a guarantee he’ll play well. He didn’t. His youth got in the way.

Now we’re at the three-day Finals event where competitors are expected to play two piano concertos back to back. We’ve got 3 Russians out of 7 competing. Not bad odd and perfectly consistent with the last 3 competition outcomes of 2015, 2011, and 2007. So far so good. The most nationalistic, most state-sponsored, most Russian and most Russian-controlled contest of immense national pride leading straight up to Vladimir himself is heading in the same direction as always …a Russian winner. Or at the very least to any of the top three spots.

Then came the unthinkable: the shameless mix-up of concerto order for An Tianxu, a Chinese pianist . The whole thing was quickly blamed on the announcer who misspoke, as if the competitor had no prior confirmation of order by the competition’s management. Why embarrass the management when you can quickly get rid of the announcer to diffuse public outage ? Not that the Chinese pianist had a reasonable shot at winning, but that’s not the point.

Today the whole thing comes completely undone for the Russian Gergiev-controlled competition, a contest that is an iconic symbol of perceived Russian cultural supremacy. But first, here is competition’s stats in the piano category (other categories aren’t too different in results):

2015
* 1st Prize: Dmitry Masleev,(Russia)

2011
* 1st Prize: Daniil Trifonov (Russia)

2007
* 1st Prize: Not awarded
* 2nd Prize: Miroslav Kultyshev (Russia)
* 3rd Prize: Alexander Lubyantsev (Russia)

2002
* 1st Prize: Ayako Uehara (Japan)
* 2nd Prize: Alexei Nabiulin (Russia)

1998
* 1st Prize: Denis Matsuev (Russia)
* 2nd Prize: Vadim Rudenko (Russia)

1994
* 1st Prize: Not awarded
* 2nd Prize: Nikolai Lugansky (Russia)
* 3rd Prize: Vadim Rudenko (Russia) and HaeSun Paik (China)

1990
* 1st Prize: Boris Berezovsky (USSR)
* 2nd Prize: Vladimir Mischouk (USSR)
* 3rd Prize: Anton Mordasov (USSR), Kevin Kenner (USA), Johan Schmidt (Germany)

1986
* 1st Prize: Barry Douglas (UK)
* 2nd Prize: Natalia Trull (USSR)
* 3rd Prize: Irina Plotnikova (USSR)

1982
* 1st Prize: Not awarded
* 2nd Prize: and Vladimir Ovchinnikov (USSR), Peter Donohoe (UK)

1978
* 1st Prize: Mikhail Pletnev (USSR)
* 3rd Prize: Nikolai Demidenko (USSR) and Evgeny Ryvkin (USSR)

1974
* 1st Prize: Andrei Gavrilov (USSR)
* 2nd Prize: Stanislav Igolinsky (USSR)
* 3rd Prize: Youri Egorov (USSR)

1970
* 1st Prize: Vladimir Krainev (USSR) and John Lill (UK)
* 3rd Prize: Viktoria Postnikova (USSR) and Arthur Moreira Lima (Brazil)

1966
* 1st Prize: Grigory Sokolov (USSR)
* 3rd Prize: Victor Eresko (USSR)

1962
* 1st Prize: Vladimir Ashkenazy (USSR) and John Ogdon (United Kingdom)
* 3rd Prize: Eliso Virsaladze (USSR)

1958
* 1st Prize: Van Cliburn (USA)
* 2nd Prize: Lev Vlassenko (USSR) and Liu Shih-kun (China
* 3rd Prize: Naum Shtarkman (USSR)

The story weaves itself without any additional commentary, doesn’t it? Except for a few notable anomalies that even Nikita Khruschev couldn’t prevent. Just as in 1958, when the world was stunned by the Iron Curtain’s awarding of 1st Prize to an American sensation, Van Cliburn, today we watched a similar phenomenon.

France’s Alexandre Kantorow left absolutely no choice to the puppet master, Valery Gergiev, and his jury cronies. None. Had they not awarded Alexandre the first prize for the most sublime performance of the most complicated pair of concerti, Tchaikovsky’s 2nd and Brahms’ 2nd played back-to-back and probably for the first time in competition history, the music mafia would’ve lost all credibility. It would’ve looked like orchestrated fraud. It would’ve made Gergiev look shadier, and he can’t afford that.

So! Frenchman Alexandre Kantorow deservedly wins. American Kenneth Broberg robbed of 2nd place and given 3rd, with Japanese, Mao Fujita, taking 2nd for reasons unbeknownst to many.

But let’s not lose sight of the main idea; never in the history of the most Russian and proudly nationalistic competition in the world, the Russians have not taken first two or three spots in some order. Or at least have been present. Today all three spots got occupied by non-Russians. This marks the end of an era that even the most political of musical entities couldn’t prevent or change.

The official end of Russian self-established, self-proclaimed supremacy in classical piano on home turf. Or anywhere, for that matter. Stamped, signed and delivered by the Russian oligarchs, puppet masters, and jury influencers themselves.

Today is also the beginning of a different era; Tchaikovsky’s 2nd Piano Concerto, that has so unfairly been shelved in favour of the popular 1st, is revived in full glory. All at the fingers of a 22 year-old Frenchman who took enormous risk in choosing the most complex and expansive of programmes in the most politically infused competition in the world.

(c) Valerie Sobel/Slipped Disc

 

 

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  • Horrible Russians, they always choose worst, but russian pianist . Look at these uknown names and very bad pianists: Vladimir Ashkenazy, Grigory Sokolov , Mikhail Pletnev, Nikolai Lugansky, Boris Berezovsky …. Ahahaha ))

    • I know, right? And you are forgetting Trifonov who I think is one of the very best of his generation. Others like Postnikova (Busoni Piano Concerto) and Demidenko (Mednter Piano Concertos) have had recordings that I’ve enjoyed immensely over the years. I think this is a very unfair article. Do the Russians have a home-field advantage? Perhaps. Have they been pushovers? Certainly not.

      • Y2K, but now we know that a Russian conductor may have purposely sabotage a passage in the first movement of the Tchaikovsky 1 against Seong Jin Cho during the 2011 Tchaikovsky Competition.
        Youtube the video and read the comments and click on the appropriate links that prove the sabotage. It is clearly recorded for all to see.

    • Indeed, if there is a piano competition in the world that consistently delivers top prizes to pianists that still prove themselves after decades on stage, that is the Čajkovskij.

    • She exists to be angry. It’s more than anger. It’s a black and white view of life that allows no gray. She emigrated from the former USSR as a child. She hates anything having to do with that. She writes a lot about a lot of things, and says nothing. This article, for example, which rants about the Russian system, the same system that actually awarded the prizes to non-Russians. Nothing in the article had to do with music (although she claims to be a pianist). So what’s her beef? The result of the competition belies the title of her article.

  • Time shows that normally the winners of this most prestigious piano completion in the world are objectively the best. I attended dozens of concerts by Sokolov, Lugansky, Matsuev, Masleev (!) , Berezovsky, Pletnev Trifonov, and heard hundreds of recordings by Ashkenazy, Gavrilov, Krainev, etc. Their quality or even genious (in case of Sokolov, Pletnev or Trifonov) are out of doubt.

    Get over your russophobia and enjoy the music.

  • i would of given Mao Fujita first prize ex-aequo with Kantorow.
    He was incredibly consistent throughout the competition.
    He adapted his sound to every composer.
    Kantorow was indeed incredible but somehow he had sometimes the same approach in sound to every composer.

    • Andrei, I agree.
      Those of you who have not heard Mao Fujita play, do it. He is incredible. And imo, the clear winner.

      Breathtaking technique, and playing from his heart.

  • Correction: in 1970 Horacio Gutierez ( Cuban- American)was the winner of the Silver Medal.
    In 1978: André Laplante and Pascal Devoyon shared the Silver Medal

  • Well, Valerie, after reading your report all I can conclude is that the jury did its job perfectly and chose a deserving winner. I happen to know all the principal personalities involved (apart from Putin) and I have no doubt that integrity ruled. Bravo to the winners who gave their all and who won fair and square. If Russians like Trifonov happened to win in previous years it simply underlines that this competition usually gets it right.

  • Classical piano resembles boxing in that if you replace the world boxing championship by the Cuban national one the quality is not reduced – on the contrary, possibly increased. Kantorov is probably the equivalent of a Miami Cuban!

    I attended all of Tchaik 16 (piano). Extending the sporting analogy, sitting in the amphitheatre of the ‘Big Hall’ is like it is was standing in the Liverpool Kop (may be that’s why Petrenko was invited for the final round?). Surrounded by passionate experts/fans (my neighbour accurately fingering on her knee ‘Wild Hunt’ to accompany the on-stage performance), with many standing and others sitting in the aisles, it was electric to experience the ‘crowd’s’ response to each and every pianist, with little or no chauvinism evident.

    For me the participants provided ‘countless’ goose-bump and sublime moments, specially in the second round. Just one was Kopachevsky’s finale of the Ginzburg-Greig transcription (it was nice to see the head bust of Ginzburg in the Bolshoi Hall as evidence of the esteem to which Russians hold him) but there were many more. Mao, with his non-Russian style provided many of them. Unfortunately, he ‘ran out of steam’ in his Rach 3, in a program almost as epic as Kantorov’s. The drama of Malofeev’s performance is hard to beat – a bright 17 year old transforming into a good imitation of the ‘Scream’ in the space of 50 min.

    It was a wonderfully exciting competition, every bit as good as the one held in Russia last year, with just as much brilliance, drama and excitement. Bolshoi Spasibo to Matsuev et al.

    Minor gripe – the dropping of the Mozart concerto round.

  • This Gergiev/Russia bashing here is constantly annoying at best, with a perserverance really astonishing, trumped only by Trumps twitter tirades. I intended to write a comment after the Piano Competition in Beijing already, when the success of Malofeev was seen as evidence for fraud and the problems of the winner with the Tchaikovsky, especially at the end, weren’t mentioned at all. I decided that it is simply not worth to waste time with this kind of “journalism”. But now it’s even worse – who would have thought … so … I allow myself to have some fun writing a comment …
    1. Russia has a lot of capable pianists very comfortable in the required repertoire and very well trained. They grow up in this atmosphere, of course a lot of them sound great with it.
    2. To use the incident with An in this article is ridiculous. It was a sad mistake, An was too surprised to stop it, and the orchestra/conductor/jury didn’t know at that moment (otherwise one must assume the whole orchestra and the international acclaimed conductor Vasily Petrenko would gladly participate in a fraud against a “dangerous” participant, which is crazy unless one says that Russian musicians are capable of exactly this because they are Russians – an that is exactly what happens here all the time with these articles here, the Russians are always bad). And in all other countries every event happens without the slightest mistake, obviously^^ – Sydney, Olympics, 2000, the vault was not correctly prepared (it was too low), favourite Svetlana Chorkina got derailed after she fell; afterwards she fell from the balance beam as well as a consequence – she was offered to repeat the vault but declined. It was a double win for Romania then, for whatever reason … (?????? – perhaps the author of this article has some ideas? Beware – Russia and Romania were real opponents in gymnastics at the time and the Iron curtain was gone, so one can’t use this as an argument).
    3. Olga Volkova was eliminated after the first round and was NOT admitted to the Semifinals. Get back to school and learn how to count and to read a list.
    https://tch16.com/en/news/273.htm
    And/or how to listen to someone (the announcer started with “Number two” for the semifinalists, “Number one”was not mentioned and “one” comes before “two”, even in Russia). In Germany it’s called “Bildung”. Or wait … she played Semifinals and her replay was erased to cover it up – and nobody saw or heard it (Russian mystery^^).
    4. “Today all three spots got occupied by non-Russians” (funny statement) Shishkin tied 2., Melnikov & Emelyanov tied 3. Not too shabby … (Shishkin took same place as Lugansky, who is widely considered to be THE Rach player of his time). To write about the whole picture would have made this sentence CORRECT. You could take the prizewinners as evidence that the level was very high and the jury was open for musical ideas different from the flamboyant style Russian pianists usually have (Fujita f.e.) – instead you assume Fujita somehow got a gift as well by a fraudulous system (WHY? selling Russian concerts and discs in Japan??) and the whole thing was “cheesy” and Matsuev a “weak chairmain”.
    5. Trifonov, Pletnev, Lugansky, Berezovsky, Ashkenazy, Gavrilov took first prize – and their placements seem somehow shady in that article as a whole (????? seriously).
    6. Russian concert pianists are very successful worldwide (obviously some people aren’t so happy with that). This text here is less successful – it’s heavily one – sided, the arguments are not always full of logic/misleading and there is a simple mistake in it, which could be avoided by a decent parrot with the ability to count.
    7. Some ideas for the author of this article for his article in 2023 (in case Malofeev will win, there MUST be at least one dirty reason for that, evidently^^):
    – “Dangerous” contenders are paid beforehand to stay away from the competition
    – wrong papers for Russians in order to make the whole thing more “international”
    – 30000 Dollar cash and 10 concerts with the Mariinsky in order to:
    a) confuse the order of your concerts yourself
    b) to play at least one piece not announced at all (works brilliantly especially in the concert round if one pulls through the whole thing and the orchestra follows suit … Rach 3 vs. Prok 2, f.e.)
    3) in case you are unable to do 1) oder 2), run away from stage at a dramatic moment.
    8. Looking forward to 2023 and Malofeev (I expected him to win, was blown away by his dexterity – who can play a program like that like THAT – Matsuev? Pogorelich?), but wasn’t surprised that he didn’t make it, as a longed for a small “June” or “March”, a breath of relief …)
    9. It was a lot of fun to write this comment :)))))))))
    10. I’ll never open a link to “SLIPPED DISC” ever again, my device feels unhappy about that (it has feelings, after all).
    11. I’ll gladly attend the Sommerfestspiele in Baden – Baden soon, 2 concerti with Gergiev. And a gold medal winner in the orchestra (A. Lobikov, Trombone, forgotten in this article (as evidence of fraud with gigantesque dimensions^^, as the brass category is the most important one^^), lost in translation, “slipped” – oh dear … or was that overlooked because he plays so good that the author can’t detract him without looking … cheesy? shady?). 2 prizewinners in the woodwinds. And one solo winner. It will be a treat as always.

    • Thanks for your lengthy text.
      Yes, corruption and blatantly open bribery were (are?) indeed abundant in the Tchaikovsky competition (!) – Just watch (and enjoy) the long 1990 competition documentary on YouTube, where Nikolayeva got hard cash in an envelope by some contestants, while a British gentleman in the jury (I have forgotten his name) was the only one that refused to be bribed, and went in the open about it (!)
      A disgrace, equal to doping in the Olympic Games!!

  • Bravo to Alexandre Kantorow! It’s absolutely true that he ” took enormous risk in choosing the most complex and expansive of programmes in the most politically infused competition in the world.”

  • This is pure nonsense. The entire thesis is that Russia controls everything in the competition and then three non-Russians win. What is the point of this post? The competition was actually exactly that, a competition. Had three Russians won the the first three prizes you would have proved your thesis. Instead you proved the opposite. Congratulations!

  • Apropos the above, this is the text of a letter dated 1997 which was found on the desk of critic Harold C. Schonberg after his death, and published in Marston Records CD-set “A Century of Chopin.” It sets forth Schonberg’s reasons never to participate in judging an international competition again: May 17, 1997
    Private Letter

    “Of course there are many ways to play Chopin. I was a judge at the Chopin Competition in Warsaw two years ago. It was the worst competition I ever attended. Of the 128 pianists, I thought only one had the required skills, and he did not win. As a species of idiocy, the competition rules set a world-class standard. In the first round we had to listen to 128 pianists in a 20-minute program in which he or she had to play one of the Ballades and three etudes….

    After the finals we retired for a discussion session. The head of the jury, Jan Ekier, dismissed the efforts of the one good pianist. This, he said, was not ‘the true Chopin style.’

    I saw red, and grabbed the microphone.

    ‘Mr. Ekier,’ I said, ‘I think I know something about the Romantic style. But what is the true Chopin style? Is the true Chopin style represented by the Polish pianist Paderewski, with his poor technique, exaggerated rubatos and constant tempo shifts? Or is it represented by the Polish pianist Hofmann, whose style was pure, simple and if anything, classic? Or the Polish pianist Friedman, with the exuberance and rhythmic freedom you all admire? Or the Polish pianist Arthur Rubinstein, with his unaffected, warm, very literal approach? Tell me, what is the true Chopin style?’

    Pause.

    ‘Well, that was yesterday. Today is today.’

    Bullshit.

    Anyway, my competition days are over. When I am invited, I cite my poor eyesight. So, they say, if your ears are OK (they are) what difference does it make. My answer is that concert-giving has something to do with appearance, transmission, charisma. And if I cannot see the stage, I have no business being a judge…”

  • Boris Berezovsky is the only pianist who I have heard play the Tchaikovsky 2nd. I hope it starts to get performed more often now.

    • Emil Gilels played it (and recorded it); Gary Graffman played it (and recorded it). Mikhail Pletnev played and recorded it; Yuja Wang plays it (you can see it on YouTube). I am sure that there are many others.

      Where have you been?

      • I meant play it live. I attend regularly at Boston, Montreal and Ottawa and several good regional orchestras like Albany, Portland, Vermont and Hartford. I heard it in Montreal several years ago. I have the Graffman and Pletnev recordings. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard the Tchaikovsky 1st in the same time period. At least 20. A kid played the 2nd in a semi-professional orchestra in upstate NY about 8 years ago too.

      • It happens. My orchestra has played it twice over the years (not with super-famous soloists), but we are out in the western hinterlands of the US where nobody would know about it.

      • Very true. I would add my old absolute favorite, Shura Cherkassky, who gave me my first hearing of it on his 1955(?) LP- (DG with Berlin Phil/Richard Kraus, which i think was the first modern recording), and his live performances thru the 60s, 70s & 80s, always fantastic. I was lucky also to hear Gary Graffman live, (in Sydney), and Peter Katin at the Proms, absolutely stunning!
        This said, love it tho i do, it’s a problematical piece to programme; very difficult for both soloist & orch, with the trio demands of the second movement, very unbalanced with massive 1st & 2nd movements and brief athletic finale….not too surprose that it’s not often played, a shame.
        All credit to Kantorow therefore.

    • Lukas Genushas played 2nd Tchai in 2015 and took 2nd price. Smart choice-much less difficult than 1st Tchai

    • I can see why soloists would pass over the 2nd, the second movement has these long virtuosic violin/cello solo/duet passages where the pianist just sits there and has nothing to do.

      During these passages, either the pianist can turn around and watch his colleagues, or keep his back to them and think about what he’ll have for dinner after the concert.

  • Poor writer, she must have had a frustrating life to have come up with this trashy article. Most, if not all of the past winners had stellar careers post competition. But yeah, let’s blame the Russians for not letting your favorite win.

  • quel honte ce texte. on y lit tout le mepris, la mauvaise foi et l’envie que les anglo-saxons eprouvent envers les russes en particulier, et envers tout ce qui peut echapper a leur domination en general. Comme si les pianistes russes, et le monde musical russe en general, universellement admire, avait besoin de votre mediocre arbitrage plein d’allusions mesquines, enrobes de suggestions de finesse d’analyse politique. pffff…..ridicule. (une francaise)

  • I actually agree, I can’t speak for the other instruments, but for brass, the Russian trombonist that tied for 1st had no business even making the semi-finals. His playing wasn’t clean, his soft vibrato sounds like an eight-grader attempting vibrato, and I can go on. I’m convinced now that the competition is biased

    • I agree. I don’t know much about tbone but his level was not great. It was surprising. On the other hand, the Russian guy who came in 2nd on tuba was very good, I thought.

      The level of Russian brass is not great. It’s like they’ve been isolated from the rest of the world and don’t know what their instruments are supposed to sound like. Listening to the orchs in this Competition you can hear that. There was some pretty weird horn playing in Kantorow’s final gala performance of Tchaik 2 piano concerto.

      It was strange that they went thru this whole extravaganza about adding brass and wind catagories to the Competition to improve the level of Russian instrumentalists on those specialties, inviting in a lot of good candidates from the US where brass level is good, and then ended up choosing that lame Russian trombone for 1st prize.

  • Did anyone else go cuckoo listening to the Prokofiev 3rd about ninety times?? Not to mention the Tchaikovsky concerto. I love both, but wish there had been more variety.

    • The Prokofiev is very demanding and impressive to the judges. And when played well, it is hauntingly beautiful.

      I enjoy Argerich and Yuja’s versions.

  • Competitions are a sham. I’m not speaking of any possible bias whatsoever. The winners and those who “make it” because they have advanced in these big competitions are getting younger and younger, but in my opinion, are completely sterile and uninteresting. I admire their confidence and their playing all the correct notes in appropriate fashion, they also all look very good on stage, but frankly, I don’t care for their playing at all. I think they are too young and lack life experience. Should they really be crowned laureates of these long-time venerable competitions just because no one else happened to apply, or be “better” at that particular time? I always looked up to these historically major competitions as being of high esteem. That is no longer the case. Seems to me that the artistic quality is no longer there, and worse, no one seems to notice or care, judging by how prizes are continuing to be awarded in abundance, and also by public opinion.

    I still find myself hooked on watching these competitions, voyeur that I am, but it’s no longer for the music, but more to get reacquainted with the famous piano repertoire, since they all play every note so clearly and cleanly.

    Once in a while, a Triifonov-type emerges, even if still not a full-developed artist that these competitions identified in the past, but more often than not, prizes and subsequent career endorsements are awarded to run-of-the-mill “executioners”, the reliable sort who play cleanly and satisfactorily each time. Using the past criteria of whether they maintain careers is also no longer valid. Today, career success is all about marketing. People don’t listen nor think for themselves anymore, and will engage artists just because they participated in famous competitions or have a large following, not because of their musicianship.

    I thought Kantorow special just from the finals. I’m glad he won.

    Still, I continue to hope that competition judges and the general public (audiences are judges too, and can make or break careers) will stop being infatuated with youth, clean, unobjectionable playing, looks, whatever, and go deeper, into the heart of the musical conversation itself.

  • ERRATUM: HaeSun Paik’s nationality is incorrectly identified in the 1994 competition. She’s from Korea.

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