The International Tchaikovsky Competition amounted to a breakthrough during the second half of the twentieth century in the official attitude of the Soviet state towards gifted youth, the art of performance, and the music of Tchaikovsky. The first competition in the spring of 1958 taught the country to hold out with pride the Russian-Soviet school of performance as «the best in the world," and to gain new idols by way of a system of regular international competitions. In the meantime, much water has passed under the bridge. The iron curtain came down, teachers of the pre-revolution school were replaced by their pupils, the early prizewinners of the Tchaikovsky Competition, and then by their pupils' pupils. The world, which was once divided into «them» and «us» has once more become a unified whole.
In the fifty-third year of its existence, the Tchaikovsky Competition has assumed a dual character, with both Moscow and St. Petersburg taking part in it. Increasing the competition's audience by way of the Internet, inviting internationally renowned performing artists to serve on the juries, and the participation of leading concert agencies in organizing post-competition tours all make one look with new eyes at what has become a sort of «national relic.»
With the plethora of competitions today, their results may no longer have the influence they once did in the current music market. Though we may tend to forget the victories of Grigory Sokolov, Gidon Kremer, or Mikhail Pletnev at the Tchaikovsky Competition, it is difficult to deny the importance of such victories both to their careers and the careers of many other past prizewinners. Under this year's dual-city experiment, Moscow retains the piano and cello contests. Moving violin and vocal categories to the city on the Neva may be seen as a symbolic return to the sources of the Russian school of performance, the traditions of which were laid by the founder of professional musical education in Russia, Anton Rubinstein, the teacher of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
Just four years separated the birth of the Petersburg (1862) and Moscow (1866) conservatories. A graduate of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was destined to become one of the first professors of the Moscow Conservatory. On his recommendation, the Moscow professorial staff was augmented by Petersburgers, such as the composer Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov (a student of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov) and the pianist and conductor Vasily Safonov, a future rector of the Moscow Conservatory and, after his emigration to America, the St. Petersburg-to-Moscow route was also taken by outstanding musicians of the twentieth century, including violinist and conductor Alexander Orlov, conductor Alexander Gauk, and pianists Heinrich Neuhaus and Maria Yudina. The joint efforts of the two cities formed the so-called «Russian school of performance.» In 1958, it was united for the first time with its «foreign» counterpart. Van Cliburn studied at the Julliard School under Rosina Lhevinne, herself a pupil of Vasily Safonov. The 1958 finalist, Daniel Pollack, was also her student. The violinist George Sidorov, a participant in the II Tchaikovsky Competition, started out in Los Angeles studying under one of the former St. Petersburg students of Leopold Auer. There are many other such examples.
The Russian-American violinist and teacher Efrem Zimbalist, in an interview with the newspaper Soviet Culture in March 1958, recalled the chamber music evenings at the home of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, which he attended after lessons with Leopold Auer. In 1962, a pupil of Zimbalist, the Israeli violinist Shmuel Ashkenazi, received second prize at the Tchaikovsky Competition. Russian-born Gregor Piatigorsky was a member of the cello jury in 1962. At the competition, he met his brother Alexander Stogorsky, a Moscow cellist and teacher. Fates intertwined at the competition, giving genuine drama to the stories of dynasties and ordinary families. All of this enriched the Tchaikovsky Competition with a wealth of cultural memory. Numerous laureates have lived or worked abroad for many years, among them, Eliso Virsaladze, Liana Isakadze, and Paata Burchuladze in Germany; Gidon Kremer in France; Viktoria Mullova in Great Britain; Boris Berezovsky in Belgium; and Ivan Monigetti in Switzerland. Discussion of the «Russian school» in the sense of a geographical concentration gave way to the discussion of values or, as Boris Kushnir, a member of the selection jury of the 2011 Competition, put it, «of the professional standard and honesty of the performer.»
The cello appeared in the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1962. Its inclusion harks directly back to Tchaikovsky, whose friend in his mature years was the cellist Anatoly Brandukov. The composer dedicated to Brandukov
his Pezzo capriccioso, now a compulsory work in the competition’s first cello round. Brandukov (1859 – 1930), who was renowned in Moscow as a teacher, organized cycles of chamber music evenings. Following his death, these evenings were held at the concert hall of the Gnessin Academy. They were frequently attended in the 1940s by a student of the Moscow Conservatory in the class of Semyon Kozolupov, Mstislav Rostropovich. During the same years, another student of Kozolupov, Valentin Berlinsky, helped to found the Borodin Quartet, which later entered the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest-lived string quartet in history.
The enterprising activity of Rostropovich began a new stage in the popularization of cello works. The repertoire of cellists was augmented by works of Soviet composers, such as Sergei Prokofiev’s Cello Concerto and Sinfonia concertante and Dmitri Shostakovich’s quartets and First Cello Concerto. The premiere of the Shostakovich concerto, dedicated to Rostropovich, took place in September 1959 in Leningrad. By 1962, the work had achieved world renown and entered into the program of the Tchaikovsky Competition. Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto was also remembered at the opening ceremony of the Second Competition in the Kremlin Palace of Congresses. Following the welcoming speech by Shostakovich, a member of the cello jury, Frenchman Maurice Marechal, took the podium and said, in a state of some anxiety, “I have the great privilege and honor to speak after the great Soviet composer Shostakovich, who is so often applauded by Paris, and whose Cello Concerto was quite recently performed with great success at the Salle Pleyel by your incredible Rostropovich.” In 1962, the Shostakovich concerto was included in the program of competition performances by some of the most advanced Soviet and American cellists. They were Mikhail Khomitser (third prize), Toby Ellen Saks (sixth prize), Gloria Strasner, and Joanna de Keyser. And Prokofiev’s Sinfonia concertante was performed by Natalia Shakhovskaya (first prize), Natalia Gutman (third prize), Laszlo Meze (fourth prize), Lynn Harell, and Jurgen Ernest de Lemos. Two Soviet cellists, Viktor Apartsev and Valentin Feigin, made their tasks as difficult as possible, by including both works in their programs. This brought Feigin second prize. A fellow competitor was American Leslie Parnas (sharing second prize).
“The competitors had never encountered such a difficult program as the one in Moscow,” said 1962 competition jury member Daniil Shafran. “They were given the right to choose, but the choice was between works of the highest difficulty, not only technically, but most importantly, artistically. But almost no artist was frightened by the obstacles. Each one played in his or her own way and mainly coped with the task. It was very interesting for us members of the jury to hear different interpretations of the Shostakovich concerto (I was very captivated by Toby Saks in this work). It was also very interesting to compare interpretations of the Kodály sonata, different movements of which were performed by the competitors in the Second Round. Many musicians, like Feigin and Meze, Gutman and Parnas, were able to find new and original expressive possibilities there.”
Some adjustments have been made in the cellists’ program for the XIV Tchaikovsky Competition. The Second Round, as in the other instrumental categories, is divided into two stages. Stage one includes a compulsory work written especially for the competition by Krzysztof Penderecki. Mr. Penderecki will also serve on the jury of the Final Round of the present Tchaikovsky Competition. The second stage, with chamber orchestra, gives the competitors a choice between two concertos by Joseph Haydn.
The history of the Tchaikovsky Competition comes particularly alive through photographs that show its fans. The sympathy of the audience for the American cellist Toby Saks, whose energetic performance was accompanied by a lovely appearance, seems quite touching today. In 1962, she was constantly surrounded by fans. But it was not the fans that were her real source of inspiration. Instead, it was the kind encouragement of the authoritative Frenchman Maurice Marechal who told her something along the lines of “break a leg.”
And what of the wonderful words that accompanied performances by one of the youngest competitors in 1962, Natalia Gutman. Her skill and talent completely won over the legendary Gregor Piatigorsky. “Gutman plays charmingly, in a feminine manner, but she also has power,” Piatigorsky said. “I found her very interesting.
I kissed her once, she was so serious and charming, so shy and sad. And then I noticed that she was suddenly smiling. This was the only smile that I saw on her face for the entire competition.”
Piatigorsky also wrote aptly of the cello competition in Moscow: “We know that the cello was kept out of the limelight for a long time. It was an instrument of the ‘second rank,’ so to speak, especially compared to the piano and violin. If you will, a reflection of those views also affected the first Tchaikovsky Competition in which the cello had not been included. It made me quite angry at the time. But of course this is not the only example.
I remember once playing in an ensemble with Heifetz and Horowitz. Before we came out on stage, we debated the ‘important’ issue of in which order our names should appear. I quickly put an end to the discussion, by saying: ‘Why are we arguing? I know for certain who should come last, the cellist, of course...’” After the victories at the Tchaikovsky Competition by cellists of the level of David Geringas in 1970 and Ivan Monigetti in 1974, Alexander Kniazev and Alexander Rudin in 1978, Antonio Meneses in 1982, and Mario Brunello and Kirill Rodin in 1986, no one has ever raised this issue again. The prestige given the cello contest by Mstislav Rostropovich greatly helped this situation. Forced to leave the USSR in 1974, Rostropovich founded a cello competition in Paris in 1977.
An unwavering element of the Tchaikovsky Competition has been the loyalty of its fans, who have made it a truly national event. By carefully keeping track of the participants, giving them plusses and minuses, these connoisseurs of the classics have enriched the competition with certain energy in thought and perception. As it continues to tower like a cathedral designed to last for centuries, the Tchaikovsky Competition remains true to its tradition of a dual adjudication system, with the audience and juries sitting in judgment of the competitors.