What we learned about the Russians at Tchaikovsky 2019

What we learned about the Russians at Tchaikovsky 2019


norman lebrecht

June 30, 2019

Now the 16th Tchaikovsky Competition is over, we can take a slightly more distanced and nuanced approach. This site is sometimes criticised by Russian-based for being anti-Russian.

That’s ridiculous.

Many of our favourite living artists are Russian – Trifonov, Kissin, Igor Levit, Berezovsky, the two Petrenkos, Mullova, Margulis, Leonskaya – not to mention the immortals Slava, Oistrakh, Richter, Gilels, Nikolaevya and too many others to mention. No nation has yielded such a deep and persistent tradition of classical genius as Russia. How could any writer about music possibly be anti-Russian.

Anti-Putin is another matter.

What we saw at the 2019 Tchaikovsky Competition was the pervasive effect of Putin’s corruption on the musical process.

The competition was chaired by Putin’s henchman Valery Gergiev, a man who has championed Putin’s crimes in Crimea, Syria and beyond.

Gergiev appointed three trusted pals to chair the major sections of the competition – his swimming-mate Denis Matsuev at the cack-handed piano section’ his Verbier host Martin Engstroem at the violin jury (Engstroem hired Gergiev as his Verbier music director) and Carnegie Hall chief Clive Gillinson to preside over the cellos (Gillinson, in his former job, hored Gergiev as music director of the LSO). So it goes.

No eyebrows were raised, therefore, when the violin professor Boris Kushnir and Mikhail Kopelman, his string quartet partner, were allowed to sway the violin jury in favour of Kushnir’s pupil, the nondescript Sergei Dogadin, a young man who has won several competitions under Kushnir’s eye without managing to establish an international career.

Similarly, there were no protests when the juries were either all-male or majority-male – and none of the winners, needless to say, was a woman. That’s how power works in Putin’s Russia. The power cliques do as they please, without protest.

Russian media that once reported musical events with a measure of objectivity have been tamed or silenced. Russian musicians who try to find an independent voice are kicked out of competitions at an early stage. The Tchaikovsky Competition this year served to advance the cause of mediocrity. The famous Moscow audience was – so far as we could tell on television – comparatively subdued. Putin and his puppets are suffocating the system.

Those of us who love Russia and its music have witnessed a major episode in its decline.



  • christopher storey says:

    Fair(ish) comment , NL, although when you talk about mediocrity it is curious that 3 of the artists you name fall in my view into that category . In each of these cases flamboyance – and, I am afraid, conceit – outweighs talent . It just goes to show that beauty is in the eye of the beholder

  • Piano fan says:

    Remember 1958, when Nikita Khrushchev told the jury that if Cliburn was the best, then Cliburn should get first place? Putin in many respects was worse than Khrushchev ever was.

    • Richard Craig says:

      Put in is a first class bastard who wants to control everything. And I for one would NEVER attend a. Concert conducted by his henchman

      • Bob Boles says:

        Bwaaaaahaha! We wouldn’t want an ignorant bigot like you at concerts, you blowhard buffoon, Richard Craig! So you get back on your horse, John Wayne – with John-Bomb Bolton, and Lamebrain McCain, Shillary Stinkton, Mike Pumpass, Bill Stinktoh, Jens Doltenberg, Chavin Williamson, Foggy Rasmussen, Bozo Bumjobson, and the rest of your neocon knuckledraggers. You ain’t wanted here, Buddy – so hit the trail.

        • Бретермейер says:

          В Питере тоже жарко? 😉 Привет из Германии!

          (Не корми тролля, да, да, знаю.)

          • Robert Groen says:

            Speak English, Brettermeyer!

          • Brettermeier says:

            “Speak English, Brettermeyer!”

            It’s about the Tchaikovsky Competition in Russia, so learn Russian. I’m sure Bob’s with me on that. 😉

          • Bob Boles says:

            а я в москве, не питер )) у нас всего 23 градусов, но сегодня пасмурно и дождливо.

          • Brettermeier says:

            Кто знал…

            And, to accommodate our Russian-challenged other Bob here:

            A Russian who’s randomly posting anti-Hillary comments. Now where have I heard that before. 😉

          • Bob Boles says:

            [[ A Russian ]]

            No, I’ve never claimed to be Russian. I just live and work here. The rest is in your head – like almost everything else you write about Russia too 😉

          • Brettermeier says:

            “The rest is in your head – like almost everything else you write about Russia too”

            Since I didn’t write anything about Russia, it’s gotta be your head you should be worrying about. See ya.

  • Laurie says:

    What are you TALKING about? Numerous members of the jury and numerous winners were women.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Not on the 3 main juries – piano, violin, cello.

      • Tweettweet says:

        And also woodwind and brass….although for brass one could say that this world is dominated by men. But for woodwind only one woman in the jury, that’s ridiculous.

    • Anon says:

      I strongly disagree. It was VERY noticeable in both Galas how few women winners there were. Practically all of women were singers, who had a special catagory just for women.

      Brass had no women jurors and winds had one token woman. Winds were the only catagory which was remotely equitable between men and women.

      • Simon Hall says:

        In a talent competition why should there be gender equality? Surely TALENT has to be the main reason for inclusion.

        • Anon says:

          Because there is plenty of female talent out there on all of these instruments and it’s being overlooked and not included in this competition. I am speaking both of the jury gender composition and the candidates.

          The Tchaik is still an old boys’ system. Male jury members call on their male buddies to serve with them regardless of the large no. of qualified females there might be. It’s comfortable. It’s easier for them. That’s why we saw the glaring lack of women on most of the juries. The potential qualified women jurors – and there are loads – just don’t occur to these men.

          On a couple of juries there was maybe one woman. An afterthought, perhaps, when the jury realized there might be complaints. A token.

          Once you have an all male or primarily male jury, it’s really a tough call to make sure women are treated fairly as candidates. It’s my opinion that male jurors will mostly tend to empathize with and identify with the male candidates, be it conscious or unconscious. People generally tend to like others who are like themselves.

          These are not bad men. They do not consciously discriminate against women. It just doesn’t occur to them that a woman, if she is as qualified or more qualified than one of their cronies, should be included on their jury. They are old boys, pure and simple.

          Similarly, these jury men are often so eager to give their own students, or young men who they identify with (“that could be me!”), a chance at the competition, they often overlook the fact that a female candidate might be better qualified.

          One woman on the wind jury was ridiculous in light of all the qualified women there are out there who could serve. Zero women on the brass jury was just insane. It didn’t even occur to them to have one token female. There are plenty of qualified female brass players who could have served.

          As far as gender equality, this Competition did not do too well. I got the impression that Russia is still in the dark ages.

    • Pauker says:

      One women and 11 old white men on the violin jury. I believe 4 of them were Russians. Three at least. Winner? “Non-descript” Dogadin.

    • Sanda Schuldmann says:

      What does this have to do with the topic discussed?

  • SamUchida says:

    As someone who attended all the Tchaik 16 piano competition, something like 50 hours of artistic endeavour from some of the most talented and passionate young people you will find anywhere, I can tell you that the atmosphere throughout was electric, whilst deeply sympathetic and encouraging to all the participants. The four ‘curtain calls’ Mao got at the end of his semifinal (Matsuev doing his bit with his arm length clapping!), the near riot after Kantorov finished his final (synchronised clapping, foot stamping – the ‘full Moscow monte’), the amazing sustained ovation for Broberg and the orchestra at the end of his final all spring to mind, but there were many other examples. Clearly TV, even in the capable hands of Medici, is an inferior medium when it comes to appreciating all that goes on with live music!

    For a ‘death warmed up’ audience try the Barbican or Festival Hall in the middle of winter! Don’t get me wrong, I still love going to those places, but it is nothing like going to the typical concert in the Moscow Conservatory.

    • With love from Russia says:

      Thanks for your comments, Sir.
      As a Moscowite I think all the endless NL’s comments to the topic are at least unfair. It reminds me so much about the hysteria in the British media before the football tournament last year. It’s very similar to propaganda we have in our country, but just in another direction. The author should finally experience the competiton personally before he says the audience was “subdued”. The audience of the Tchayk has never been subdued. Moreover, some jury members say they cannot ignore it (remembering the discussions re. Lucas Debargue).
      The most common resume in the social media to the last competetion is that the jury have did their job brilliantly, so much above any expectations and concerns that the Russians (and especially Matsuev’s protégee Malofeev) could have an advantage or any decision – including Grand-Prix – could be based on any non-musical reason. Not at all. Strong Russian participants like very well-known Gugnin were eliminated in the prelims; those 3 who won have been clearly better than the rest; and USD 100 000 as Grand-Prix – again! – leave Russia.
      So there is no single reason to accuse the jury members of corruption.
      The thing is that any important and influential people are more or less dependent on Putin – but that’s no surprise after the last 20 years. But it is a joke to suppose he confirms the winners of Thayk. You are so far away from reality.
      Last, but not least. I am pretty sure Mr. Gergiev would be astonished to know he is blamed for discrimination of women. He must have considered the professional skills only. Women face no restrictions in Russia. They have the same rights as men, but since our society is a bit more conservative than the european, men normally play more important role in business and politics – but only because women do want so.

      • Nick says:

        Bravo!! Excellent comment and very true!
        If there is one area where there is NO DISCRIMINATION in Russia it is GENDER. Women are considered equal to men, and you are right, conservative views are the foundation of Russian lifestyle and mentality, thus making women wanting men, and particularly their own men, making brilliant careers. Russian women are proud of their successful male partners!
        NL’s political identity bias is just one of the signs of the speedy destruction of European (Western) Civilization.

      • Bob Boles says:


    • Wladek says:

      Baloney ! you are writing about a “competition”
      audience which is not the same as a “general” audience that come together to hear music
      presented plain and simple as music .
      For a typical Moscow audience music is about
      proving that as Russians they are equal to the Western concepts of the art .That is why
      the Tchaikovsky competition is such a politicized event .For the Russians it is to prove a cultural point
      that they are equal to western musical concepts
      realizing at the same time to their inner dismay that the art form has come to them from the west.
      All that banging away and sawing away is a western conceit.They have made it their own and in the process debased it .

  • anon says:

    You don’t say who, in your judgement, should’ve / would’ve won instead, if the competition had not been corrupt or compromised?

    Which means the juries nonetheless reached the right results despited the corrupt/compromised competition?

    • Martha says:

      Someone with the slightest understanding of Brahms for instance? Just a thought.

    • Brettermeier says:

      “You don’t say who, in your judgement, should’ve / would’ve won instead, if the competition had not been corrupt or compromised?

      Which means the juries nonetheless reached the right results despited the corrupt/compromised competition?”

      You cannot make that conclusion. (Bad, but sufficient) example:

      A: “The sun has set.” – B: “Now we have to sit in the dark because you did not mention a lamp.”

  • Bob Boles says:

    They seek him here! They seek him there!
    They seek that Putin everywhere!
    While Khashoggi’s murderer (they say)
    Takes tea & scones with Theresa May.

  • almaviva says:

    Spot on! Bravo!!

  • Harry Collier says:

    Gergiev a “henchman”? “Crimes” in Crimea and Syria? I suggest you leave your political views out of it and concentrate on music and musicians. You come over as more naive than an up-country American politician.

    • Bob Boles says:

      This site is paid to gaslight Russian musicians – Gergirev, Matsuev, Netrebko, Spivakov and others. The more they write ‘rubbish’, the clearer this trashing becomes. Slipped Disc has lost all credibility, and is now just a NATO-sponsored scandal sheet of baseless neoconservative tittle-tattle. Now I’ll be banned for writing the truth.

      • Brettermeier says:

        “NATO-sponsored scandal sheet of baseless neoconservative tittle-tattle. Now I’ll be banned for writing the truth.”

        AND CHEMTRAILS!!!!!!1!!

        I always wanted to shout that at a tinfoil hatter. How’s that for truth. Thank you for making yourself available.

  • M2N2K says:

    Which living Margulis do you have in mind?

    • M2N2K says:

      Still no response… The reason I am asking this is that three of the late Vitaly’s children are performing musicians and it is not specified which one of them was meant in this post. Or possibly it is some other Margulis that I am forgetting about. Please clarify!

  • Nonsense says:

    I am totally in agreement with this article. I add that even the cello section was simply ridiculous. A very low level, it seemed a Double bass contest, performances of important concerts with bowing and facilitated virtuosic passages, stuff to unbelieve. Programs with contemporary pieces of music that the jurors never played. A farce and a great lowering of level

    • Bob Boles says:

      You believe it’s the jurors’ job to play all the pieces themselves? Shows how very little you know!! ‘Nonsense’ is the perfect name for you!

  • Ursus Bohemicus says:

    If you are not anti Russian but anti Putin, why is your article entitled “What we learned about the Russians”?

  • Cyril says:

    “Russian musicians who try to find an independent voice are kicked out of competitions at an early stage.”

    Who are these musicians, this year? You mentioned Malofeev in an earlier post, but his first round performance was not deserving of moving on, given the performances he was up against.

  • Brettermeier says:

    “Anti-Putin is another matter.”

    So it’s ok to discriminate dictators now?

    • Sanda Schuldmann says:

      Yes, and it is imperative to be pointed out and objected to! Thank you, Mr. Leberecht, for your courage of putting it in writing. Could not agree with you more

      • Brettermeier says:

        Oh boy.

        I remember the times when people didn’t need emojis to discern irony. Please visualize a rolling eye emoji here ->

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    It sounds like any US or UK university, with censorship, groupthink and safe spaces. Also corporate life where you have to toe the ideological line, or else!!

  • Keybawd says:

    At the last Leeds competition I picked the winner in the opening round. “Winner”? I hate competitions but within a few minutes, I recognised Frederic Liu as a superb pianist and musician whether he would win or not – he did. At the Tchaikovsky competition I could barely keep awake for the finalists – except for Broberg. Now there is a musician. He even made me enjoy the Bflat concerto after hearing 1000 performances at least over the years. Emelyanov was ‘ordinary’. In all it was a horrible competition – fingers and war-horses – and very little poetry.

    • Leopold says:

      Sorry, but who is Frederic Liu? I couldn’t find any information on him.

    • Bob Boles says:

      Then you need to wake up! Or did you snore through the astonishing singing of coloratura soprano Aigul Hismatullina? There’s someone who is going places! And excellently conducted by Gergiev, let us add.

  • Nick says:

    Some of what you say might be true, but what does it have to do with protests against “women vs men” in jury?!? What difference does it make? All that should count is artistic quality and integrity. You show again and again your unprofessional “political identity” bias! And this is shameful
    Besides, how on Earth can Mr. Levit make the same list as Mr. Richter, or even Mr. Trifonov. There are hundreds of not thousands of pianists in Russia (and outside of it) who are much, much better than both Levit and Trifonov TOGETHER! So, how these tow can make the list with Richter?!? We all know that Mr. Gergiev is not much of a conductor, but rather a political puppet. We also know that he is the present Tchaikovsky Competition Ruler! And this is pathetic, no question, but this has nothing to do with your political biases!

    • Bob Boles says:

      [[ We all know that Mr. Gergiev is not much of a conductor, but rather a political puppet.]]

      School’s out at PragerU for the summer, I see?

  • RAH says:

    You are kidding yourself if you do not think there is anything shady about the outcome of this contest.

    Of course, it has nothing to do with women and men being ‘equal’, Russian culture or political bias. It does however have everything to do with the legitimacy and apparent influencing of the results. Like there isn’t already a long list of Russian state interference and power consolidation?

    To answer some of the comments made on this article…
    Russian apologists are always first to cry ‘bias’ or ‘destruction of Western culture’, when it is so blatently obvious to everyone else in the room that Russia continuously tries to covers its tracks when it is accused of foul play. That they feel themselves always to be the victim and never need to explain themselves is odious.

    • Bob Boles says:

      Hello, Gavin! What have you been doing since you were sacked as British Defence Minister? Gone back to selling fireplaces, have you?

      What was it you said Russia could do? “GO AWAY! SHUT UP!”, eh? Shouted like a true Yorkshireman!

  • Anon says:

    I’ll forget about the equality of outcome and political stuff.
    But please leave Gergiev alone. He is one of the best conductors in the world. His music has made millions of people around the world happy.
    I don’t care about his connections, as long as they allow him to bring music to more people around the world.

    • Bob Boles says:

      This site about neither music, nor happiness, nor yet fine musical peformances It’s about gutless political harassment and abuse of outstanding musicians, to serve the needs of the New World Order.

      Slipped Disc – the website which named renowned composer Rodion Schedrin – in his 80s – as a ‘Putin henchman’. Not that this site’s authors would recognise a single note of Schedrin’s music. But trashing the work of pensioners is the level of bravery SD runs too. Let us remember how they trashed Elena Obaztsova – on the day of her funeral.

  • Herbert von Solti says:

    Interesting to note NL! This is supposed to be considered THE COMPETITION. The Idea that it is turning political….especially when they are trying to expand the categories of competition (rather lacklusterly I thought), is most unfortunate. I really hadn’t heard this about Putin and I am intrigued….not surprised merely intrigued. Van Cliburn won it over there during the Khrushchev era. Then even more than now….an astonishing feat. But I don’t believe that he controlled the Music World the way that Stalin had ( Shostakovich would have made a GREAT interview…..if he had ever defected). Putin, it seems, wants to be more like Stalin. Sticking his people in these key places. But if you want a true international competition with no politics, Have jury panels with no conflict of interests…..no students competing…..from multiple countries. I guess that even the Tchaikovsky, for all of its amazing tradition and history, is not spared.

  • Robert Groen says:

    This venomous diatribe is your idea of a “more distanced and nuanced approach” is it, Norman?

  • Ivor Morgan says:

    Prize-winners announced and seen here:

  • Serious says:

    This is a very important discussion, NL. Despite the obvious corruption, jurors voting for their own students, there is a much more difficult one to discover; jurors NOT VOTING for the good ones, who threatens their own students. Eliminating the best participants, with that special voice one thought the Tchaikovsky Competition looked for, results in mediocrity. Together with money and power this destroys the music. A great award should be given to someone who finds a different way than corrupt competitions for genuine musical talents

  • Paul Mephisto says:

    Another arrogant, preposterous commentary by the man you enjoys writing about classical music like other mediocre journalists write about sensational “news”. Whatever NL says is usually not to be trusted!!

  • M2N2K says:

    The choice of names in this post is rather odd. For example, mentioning Mullova as the only living Russian violinist worth remembering while ignoring several others including much more brilliant and exciting Repin and Vengerov is truly weird. Listing Leonskaya among pianists but not genuine greats such as Ashkenazy and Sokolov does not make any sense. And Nikolaeva – her Bach and Shostakovich notwithstanding – should not have any place among “immortals”. Of course you are talking about your “favorites” which is more subjective than pronouncing them “best”, but still all these inconsistencies look extremely biased and unjustified.

  • Talent-seeker says:

    I totally agree with you, Norman Lebrecht, and this topic is too serious to be joked away. Corruption, politics, and Mediocrity, how can the Tchaikovsky Competition live with this?
    Too many fantastic candidates were eliminated after the First round. Another example, not taking cellist Sandra Lied Haga to the Semifinal is a scandal.

  • DYB says:

    Perfect summary of where things stand in Russia.