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Amazing Tchaikovsky Competition

By Leonid Gakkel

How it all began

The outline of the Tchaikovsky Competition history available on the Internet starts narratively: Everything started with the thin red folder “Case No. 21-Б, the International Piano and Violin Competition named after P.I. Tchaikovsky”. The document is undated, however, it relates to the year 1956, originates from the USSR Ministry of Culture and bears the signature of the then Minister of culture N. Mikhaylov. Probably, the Minister’s assistants timely remembered that Russia was the first in the world to gain that kind of experience: Anton Rubinstein International Piano and Violin Competition was held in the European capitals every five years (1890 – 1910). The words in the preamble of the document: “the Competition would be of great political importance” became the close argument for the then country leader Leonid Brezhnev (who appended the instructions to the document: “To be done”). It would be fair to say that the Tchaikovsky Competition – so it has been called since then – was of peace-making importance as the global political situation at the time heated up (the 20th CPSU Congress, the events in Hungary and Poland, the Middle East crisis). Thus, it was the right time for the performing arts to come up with an appeal for peace. After all the iron curtain built to isolate the Soviet cultural life showed signs of breaking up.

The Tchaikovsky Competition was organized in the Soviet style manner, i.e. brilliantly and on a noble scale. The large budget, generous awards and so much hospitality showed by the USSR Ministry of Culture (it bore the costs of the foreign competitors from 22 countries) indicated the growing attractiveness of the Competition. Not to mention the high artistic level of the programs and the credibility of members of the Competition Organizing Committee headed by Dmitry Shostakovich as the most famous Russian composer. Everybody was awaiting the first contest results and they justified the expectations.

Three periods of the Competition history

In 2018 the Tchaikovsky Competition celebrated its 60th anniversary. All these years the writer of the article (who came through his career from a young graduate of the Leningrad Conservatory to a rather elderly Professor of the same) has had the opportunity to observe the Competitions. While many things have changed in the country, in the world and in the people (sometimes beyond recognition), the art of music has been showing its amazing vital power helping the performing art go through difficult times and contributing to its amazing ability to revive. Therefore, the task to write about the Competition is important for me as to some extent the history of the Competition is a reflection of how the contemporary culture, especially the Russian culture, has been changing.

It appears that the history of the Tchaikovsky Competition can be divided into three periods which in the terms of a well-known critic (when referring to romantic composers) can be defined as the rise, the soaring and the descent.

The rise refers to the first three Competitions (1958, 1962 and 1966) when the structure of the Competition was formed (the First Competition comprised two categories, the Second – three and the Third – four categories). The competition jury was a pool of renowned cultural figures. Here are some of them. The I Competition, the piano jury: Emil Gilels (chairman), Heinrich Neuhaus, Lev Oborin and Sviatoslav Richter. The II Competition, the piano jury: Emil Gilels, Yakov Flier, Bruno Seidlhofer and Magda Tagliaferro; the violin jury: David Oistrakh (chairman), Leonid Kogan, and the internationally renowned western musicians Efrem Zimbalist, Grażyna Bacewicz and Hélène Jourdan-Morange. The III Competition, the piano jury: legendary Professor of musical work Nadia Boulanger; the violin jury: Joseph Szigeti; the cello jury: Mstislav Rosropovich (chairman), Daniil Shafran, Gaspar Cassado, Maurice Maréchal, Gregor Piatigorsky, and Pierre Fournier; the vocal contest jury: Sergey Lemeshev, Maria Maksakova, Irina Arkhipova, Mark Reisen, and composer Georgy Sviridov.

Under the special focus were the amazingly talented competitors and they exceeded all expectations. The winner of the piano contest of the I Competition became Van Cliburn, a US piano player who just after finishing his first program items became the object of admiration and a legend that was passed down in Russia and America for generations. His impressive performance was something that couldn’t be judged only from the professional point of view; our listener’s perception was almost irrational. Also, for long we remembered by names the other piano players taking part in the I Competition. “Nina, what geniuses perform there!” – said Vladimir Sofronitsky to Nina Shiryaeva, one of his true fans after listening to another performance of the third round by the radio. Truly, Toyoaki Matsuura and Daniel Pollack were brilliant virtuosos, if not genius. Besides, both Daniel Pollack and Van Cliburn studied under Rosina Levina, a famous Russian educator, i.e. they were kindred spirits for Russians. What was happening gave an impression of something truly exceptional and unmatched, and this was proved to be true during the many years of the Tchaikovsky Competition in the future.

The II Competition was also truly amazing. In the piano category won Vladimir Ashkenazi, the Soviet virtuoso piano player, and an eccentric Englishman John Ogdon. In the violin contest the winner was Leningrad native Boris Gutnikov who had won all the competitions in which he had participated. The first prize in the cello category went to Natalia Shakhovskaya and the third – to Natalia Gutman who’s playing style was extraordinarily easy and was against the lex non scripta of the “first prize” (same as Eliso Virsaladze, the winner of the third piano prize).

At the III Competition there was a sensation: a Leningrad native 16-year-old Grigory Sokolov while not being considered by the critics as the most likely winner won the first prize in the piano contest; his charmingly fresh musicality and magical pianism turned the jury’s opinion in his favor despite the dissatisfaction of the Moscow audience over the jury’s choice. Viktor Tretiakov and Oleg Kogan with their violin playing styles much different from each other truly impressed the audience. The American Jane Marsh prevailed over the other vocalists: at the Competition the critics for reason were predicting she would be a success of the world opera stage.

Then the Tchaikovsky Competition proceeded to soaring. Throughout 1970 - 1980 (i.e. the IV - VIII Competitions, inclusive) the jury had been impressive, especially that of the vocal contests, comprising so prominent figures of the musical world (Maria Callas visited the IV Competition; Mario Del Monaco and Ewa Bandrowska-Turska – the V Competition; Renata Tebaldi – the VII Competition). The level of skills of the competitors, especially of those from the Soviet Union and the United States, was amazing. The Competition, at least in the final round had full houses, the audience excitingly welcomed the events and enjoyed the competition atmosphere.

Let me remind you of some notable names. At the IV Competition (1970) performed: pianists Vladimir Krainev and John Lill (UK), violinists Gidon Kremer and Vladimir Spivakov, cello player David Geringas, singers Elena Obraztsova and Tamara Sinyavskaya. At the V Competition (1974) gave an outstanding performance pianists Myung-Whun Chung (South Korea) and Andras Schiff (Hungary). At the VI Competition (1978): Mikhail Pletnev. The VII Competition (1982) was remarkable for the performance of: violinists Viktoria Mullova and Sergey Stadler (Russia), cello player Antonio Meneses (Brazil). At the VIII Competition (1986): the performance of Mario Brunello (Italy), cello.

That was all soaring. And now the descent started due to the problems at the cultural and even national levels which are not worth discussing here. The composers Otar Taltakishvili and Andrei Eshpai took turns in chairing the piano jury. At the IV Competition it was for the first time that a prize was not awarded, further on it happened many times: the VII and XIII Competitions - no pianist winner; the XII Competition – no violinist and cellist winners; but the most sad record was set at the X Competition (1994) with the jury composed of the laureates of the previous competitions: the pianists and violinists were left without the first prize, and the cellists were even left without the first, second and third prizes. On the whole, the Soviet school kept standing firm: while the young Russian artists were remembered by the public, many foreign performers, even prize winners – almost disappeared from the competition stage.

In the years 1990 - 2000 the descent continued. At least the protectionism of the Competition jury comprising five - six Professors of the Moscow Conservatory became very noticeable. While truly bright competitors appeared, such as Denis Matsuev, pianist (the XI Competition, 1998) and the first in the Competition history singer - Grand Prix winner Hibla Gerzmava (the X Competition), the Tchaikovsky Competition was losing professional credibility and the moral authority that had placed it on a par with the world largest competitions such as the International Chopin Piano Competition (Warsaw) or the Queen Elizabeth Competition (Brussels). The situation got worse due to the breach of the four-year cycle of the Tchaikovsky Competition in 2007. The XII (2007) and the XIII (2011) Competitions turned out to be the perigee of the Competition, and even such a sophisticated pianist Miroslav Kultyshev from St. Petersburg could change very little at the XIII Competition (he won the second prize, no one was awarded the first prize).

Valery Gergiev heading the Tchaikovsky Competition

In 2011 on the eve of the XIV Competition Maestro Valery Gergiev headed the Organizing Committee and forthwith proposed a renewal program. The world-famous artists (such as Vladimir Ashkenazi, Efim Bronfman, Peter Donohoe, Barry Douglas, Yuri Bashmet, Maxim Vengerov, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Mario Brunello, Antonio Meneses, David Geringas, Teresa Berganza, Renata Scotto, Ferruccio Furlanetta, Raina Kabaivanska, Vladimir Atlantov, and Ildar Abdrazakov) and major concert event organizers (such as Martin Enstroem, Director of the Verbier Festival, and Clive Gillinson, Art and Executive Director of Carnegie Hall) were invited to join the jury. Notably, despite most of the above people being friends or partners of Valery Gergiev, they are prominent figures in the modern musical art, and none of them is a ministry or conservatory nominee.

As a venue the Competition was divided between Moscow and St. Petersburg and, respectively, between their concert halls; the Moscow public was slightly disappointed by the innovation, but such measure against regionalism began to tell. The Competition was made widely available on the Internet, the amounts of the cash prizes were increased. And most importantly, the practice of international concert tours of the winners was introduced (which for some of them was the most attractive point in the Competition).

Every effort was made for the project to be a success. And most importantly, the purpose for which any event of the kind is arranged was achieved – a new talented individual, Daniil Trifonov, an outstanding Russian pianist was discovered. Although not everything perhaps went according to the Organizing Committee plans, and in some way not everything in the XIV Competition was to the highest expected level (such as no first prize was given to the violinists) on the whole the Competition returned to its eventful artistic life, festive mood and to everything what distinguished it in its beast years.

The XV Competition in 2015 was as much attractive as the previous Competition. Also, the electronic count of judges’ votes was introduced, and the Grand Prix cash prize was increased. It is worth to mention the outstanding violin contest jury composed of Yuri Beshmet, Viktor Tretiakov, Maxim Vengerov, Boris Kuschnir, Leonidas Kavakos, Vadim Repin, Ilya Kaler, Nikolaj Znaider, and Michael Haefliger (Director of the Lucerne Festival), despite no “gold medal” was awarded again in the violin contest… Similar to the first Competitions the piano contest prizewinners made much of an impression: the second prize was shared by the American virtuoso John Lee and the lyrical pianist Lukas Geniušas (Russia and Lithuania). Sergey Redkin (Russia) showed unique piano playing skills (third prize). Passions ran high, there was much debate on the pros and cons over the French pianist Lucas Debarque (fourth prize), the jury split over the winner, Dmitry Masleev (Russia). The first prize in the women vocal contest also did not seem to be incontestable. On the whole, the Tchaikovsky Competition was reviving, beyond doubt.

Everybody is awaiting eagerly the XVI Competition. As before it will be held in the two Russian capitals, and with the participation of the world-renowned judges. We hope for the success of the new endeavor - the Wind Contest (owing to the unresting energy of Maestro Gergiev). The young generation of listeners will come up with their own views on the timeless classics, while the years-long committed audience of the Tchaikovsky Competition will have nostalgic feelings recalling the past events. As long as Tchaikovsky keeps on living in the music, and the Russian performing school existing, and the people around the world admiring it, and our artists and their foreign peers playing to a full house, the Russian culture with its humanity and friendliness traditions will keep on living.