There is only one criterion by which the stature of a music-performance competition can be judged: the ability to provide its first-place winners with major international careers. Over the past sixty years or so, there has been a plethora of competitions aspiring to meet this criterion. Yet while several—those in Jerusalem, Warsaw, and Geneva come to mind—have produced winners who quickly went on to make important careers, none has consistently managed, over a period of time, to do so. Even the most musically esteemed competitions, the Queen Elisabeth International Competition in Brussels and the International Tchaikowsky Competition in Moscow, have spotty records in translating winning into careers.
The Queen Elisabeth competition, originally named after the great Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe, started off with a bang. Its first two winners, both Soviet, were the violinist David Oistrakh (1937) and the pianist Emil Gilels (1938); no subsequent Elisabeth winner—not even the American pianist Leon Fleisher (1952) or the Soviet pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy (1956)—went on to scale quite the same heights of performing fame. By the late 1950’s competition leadership had moved to the Tchaikowsky, where in 1958 the American pianist Van Cliburn was the first winner, and instantly became a star. But as with the Queen Elisabeth, nothing the Tchaikowsky has done since has matched the triumph of its debut.
The causes of this seemingly inevitable downward trajectory are various. The world of instrumental music in general seems less capable of producing charismatic performers than it once was; the repertory on which great careers can be based seems somehow stale, and flattened through repetition, especially on recordings; there are now more concerts, and, especially, more competitions, thus making the winning of a first prize less of a distinction than it used to be; perhaps most important, classical music no longer provides a world encapsulating both our greatest artistic achievements and our fondest hopes for the future of art.
And yet it could have been said—at least until this past summer—that the quadrennial Tchaikowsky competition remained not just the most significant music contest in the world but an important musical event in itself. There were many reasons why this should have been so. The USSR was a closed and faraway country, made all the more attractive (so long as one failed to look at the weaponry, the politics, and the empire) by mystery and distance. The Soviet musical tradition, despite its having been attacked, manipulated, and corrupted by Stalin and Zhdanov and their successors, seemed strong, boasting the composers Shostakovich and Prokofiev and a long list of brilliant instrumentalists and conductors. And a further factor conspired to make the Tchaikowsky important: music-lovers in the West—echoing Paul Goodman’s remark in the late 1950’s (about the suppression of Boris Pasternak’s novel Dr. Zhivago) that even in prohibiting certain books the Soviets paid greater respect to literature than we did—often found that in the USSR, serious music was taken seriously.
In 1990, despite all the dislocations that the Soviet Union had been prey to, the Tchaikowsky was held on schedule, with the most important public performance sessions taking place as always in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, under a huge portrait of the composer. An American television director named Bill Fertik was there to tape it all, as he had done during past Tchaikowsky competitions, and the film he made was aired on public television this past Christmas day. The film, for all its musical lacunae, offered no end of a lesson, both about music and about life, cultural and otherwise, in the USSR.
Lasting some ninety minutes, the Fertik film was an almost completely unintegrated mélange of music, intrigue, complaints, and, surprisingly, Russian soul. It bean with the “Revolutionary” Etude of Chopin, used as a background to an impassioned but fragmentary utterance of Mikhail Gorbachev, along with brief shots of contestants, street theater, an arrest of a young demonstrator, and a Russian Orthodox church service; sometimes, too, the camera went back to the étude being played (or so it seemed) by several different pianists, one following the other.
It soon became plain that the 1990 Tchaikowsky competition was hardly the apple of the official Soviet eye that the preceding event in 1986 had been. Contestants who had entered the earlier competition remarked, with some bitterness, that last time they had been honored guests; this time the hosts wanted to get the whole thing over with. In 1986, the contestants had been picked up at the airport; this time they were forced to shift for themselves. There were too few interpreters, little hot water, and cockroaches: one contestant, who had killed a cockroach the morning of his performance, remarked, “You can’t imagine what insects do to me.”
Suddenly we heard the beginning of the Scriabin D sharp minor Étude (misidentified on the screen as the Rachmaninov D major Étude-tableau). But almost immediately this famous piano composition was effaced (though it could still he heard in the background) by an American juror declaring: “No matter what you say, if you’ve made it in Tchaikowsky, you’ve established your mark.” Back to the music for a second, and then, the music only barely audible, several contestants spoke about how important the competition was to them. At least one of them, the Soviet violinist Evgeny Bushkov (who later would win the second prize), spoke from the heart: “All I need is some people to listen to me.” Still another said rashly that in the Tchaikowsky, “You have to be absolutely perfect, musically, technically.”
Now it was the turn of the 24th Caprice of Paganini, a spliced rendition of which was played by a seemingly endless stream of violinists. Soon we were told that is was the custom to require contestants eliminated in the preliminary round to leave Moscow as soon as possible—preferably the next morning—after they were told of their fate. The same American judge who had earlier talked about establishing a mark in the Tchaikowsky now said that he liked the word the Soviets used for these expellees: “Tourists.”
Next came still another cooperative performance, this time of the Bach G minor Prelude and Fugue from Book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier. Some of the playing, I thought, was excellent, but it was quickly buried by a bombshell: the disclosure that contestants had to pay bribes—sometimes in dollars—in order to get food. Suddenly the camera shifted to covering a Soviet musicians’ strike, with an interpreter telling the camera that culture workers receive 130 rubles monthly, whereas prisoners get 150. Competition officials said that they had no government support: they had only five buses and three cars for all their transportation needs. Furthermore, unless there was a change in the political culture, this might be the last Tchaikowsky competition.
The Beethoven “Waldstein” Sonata, well-played by the Soviet pianist Boris Berezovsky, the eventual winner of the piano first prize, reared its head for an instant, but it was interrupted by a brief excerpt from a piano lesson being taken by the small daughter of Berezovsky’s wife. This attractive young woman told a joke about socialism, and there was more talk against socialism from people on the street, who asked the United States to help the struggling Soviet democracy; we began to hear a competition performance of the Liszt G sharp minor Étude, “La Campanella,” at first in the background, and then at full volume.
We now saw a rotund older man on the street asking what was going on; when he was told that it was an American film crew, he said in an excellent accent, brimming over with friendliness: “Ah, from the United States! We may talk English!” He announced that he was a Shakespeare scholar and that he had been present at every Tchaikowsky competition since the first one in 1958. He lamented that pianists today were good and strong and pragmatic, but not romantic, like Cliburn. As if to confirm his judgment, the camera cut to a performance of the Scriabin Fourth Sonata by an American, Stephen Prutsman; his playing sounded orderly and even mechanical.
By this time it was round 2 . The number of pianists had been cut from 118 to 40, and of violinists from 66 to 31. We were shown a fairly extended clip of anti-Stalinist, anti-socialist street theater, presumably taking place outside the Moscow Conservatory. Berezovsky’s wife said charmingly that nothing in the USSR worked; the shops were empty, there were no condoms in the drugstores. Alyssa Park, an excellent sixteen-year-old American violinist, later to win third prize, played the very end of the (unidentified) second movement of the Franck A major Violin Sonata.
Once more we were returned to the theme of corruption. One contestant recounted that he had seen another, a North Korean violinist, being coached by her teacher, who was also a juror. Yet another contestant, a Korean-American violinist, said, “There’s no such thing as keeping the rules here.” James Gibb, a British pianist and juror, told how, shortly before the competition, he had given a lesson in London to a Korean contestant, and received from her father an envelope containing $1,000 in American currency. Gibb thought about the matter, returned the bribe, and informed the authorities.
Before this story had really sunk in, we were moved on to bits of the Sarasate Carmen Fantasy, not very well played by the Korean-American violinist just mentioned, but brilliantly played by Akiko Suwonai of Japan, the eventual first-prize winner. The violinist Bushkov complained about Soviet concert life, in which the Tchaikowsky competition was necessary because there was no free market, everything being controlled by institutions and bureaucrats. Berezovsky’s wife added the traditional Slavic point that difficulties in life make for the development of personality. We were then taken to Scriabin’s home, where we heard Berezovsky play part of the moody C sharp minor Etude (Opus 2, No. 1) on the composer’s own piano. More transpired about the Korean student whose father had offered the $1,000 bribe to Gibb: evidently she had come to Moscow just before the competition for lessons with still other members of the jury.
Berezovsky gave a remarkably light and easy, though a bit charmless, performance (fortunately presented in full, without distractions) of the Liszt Transcendental Etude “Feux Follets,” one of the most difficult test-pieces ever written for the piano. He was immediately followed by further news from Gibb on the corruption front: the Korean lesson-taker’s father had just presented a new Hamburg Steinway concert grand to the Moscow Conservatory. After this, jurors complained that they were not being informed of the averaged scores that they themselves had awarded to the contestants in the preliminary round. Then an Italian pianist played, not very musically, the movement “August” from Tchaikowsky’s rather boring Seasons.
Now the finalists were announced, 12 in piano and 12 in violin. Here, in what are usually the climactic hours of every great international competition, all contestants are required to play a concerto, giving them a chance to scale the true pinnacle of virtuoso glory: one lonely performer, assisted (it is to be hoped) by a good conductor, dominating perhaps a hundred orchestral players in a work written to emphasize the power of the individual over the mass. Because the soloist must have freedom of pulse and pacing in order to win his triumph, the conductor must be sensitive to his wishes. Because the orchestra role, no matter how subsidiary it may at times seem, is often uncomfortably written for the players and in any case requires close listening to the soloist, the group assisting in a great competition must be highly competent and well-rehearsed.
The pieces chosen on this occasion were some of the most important works of the concerto literature: they included the Tchaikowsky Violin Concerto as well as Piano Concertos by Chopin (E minor), Tchaikowsky (B flat minor), Prokofiev (C major), and Rachmaninov (D minor). All these concertos, very much including the Chopin, lie at the heart of the sentimental, expansive, and flamboyant performing tradition in which the Moscow Conservatory (like its counterpart in Leningrad) has always specialized.
But to judge by this film, the final round of the International Tchaikowsky Competition turned out to be a mess. The various conductors were hacks, routinely sawing the air with their arms in uncaring ignorance of the soloists’ musical intentions. The orchestra was small and scrubby-sounding, with something approaching disdain written on the faces of all too many players. And most of the soloists themselves sounded callow and dogged, unable either to follow the conductor or to impress their conceptions on the orchestra.
The Prokofiev Concerto, played in the film by more than one finalist, was perhaps the biggest disaster: ensemble was very ragged, with the soloists failing to do more than spit out the notes more or less accurately. The beautiful and touching Chopin Concerto, played gracefully by the American Kevin Kenner, suffered too from bad ensemble, and we were immediately shown the soloist’s anger and disgust over a miscue in the orchestra. The famous Tchaikowsky Piano Concerto, which became immensely popular in Cliburn’s post-Moscow 1958 recording, fared little better in the Italian Enrico Pace’s weak performance, at once stiff and confused; here also the orchestra and the conductor functioned as powerful handicaps. But Suwonai’s lovely playing of the Tchaikowsky Violin Concerto, though it too was damaged by a poorly accompanying conductor and orchestra, demonstrated powerfully what had been becoming more and more obvious throughout the entire film: young Oriental violinists and pianists, after a process of acculturation occurring over at least three generations, have now become fully the equal of their Occidental peers in penetration of the masterpieces of classical music and in their commitment to this great body of work.
Fittingly, the film ended with the closing section of the last movement of the Rachmaninov Concerto. Romantic, brilliant, endlessly stirring, the finale of the Rachmaninov is a kind of hymn to the pianist as conqueror. Now at the center of every young virtuoso’s dream of glory, the concerto was first played by the composer himself in 1910 with Gustav Mahler and the New York Philharmonic (Rachmaninov was impressed that Mahler kept the orchestra well beyond the scheduled close of the rehearsal to perfect the accompaniment). Furthermore, the concerto was long associated with Vladimir Horowitz, and was played and recorded by Cliburn, to tumultuous success, upon his return from Moscow to America.
The Rachmaninov pianist in the film was the winner, Boris Berezovsky. He certainly had the work’s many notes well in hand, but he too was unable to influence the conductor and the orchestra. The heaven-storming pages that close the concerto arrived all in a heap, each player out for himself. Still, the audience, made up (as it had been throughout) of the young—including children—and the old, erupted into cheers, as it had touchingly done so many times during the film. Now the competition was over; to the sound of the famous slow variation from the Rachmaninov Variations on a Theme of Paganini, the prize-winners’ names appeared on the screen, along with a few credits, and the Ninth International Tchaikowsky Competition passed into history, or at least into television history.
Assuming the film’s portrayal to be accurate, it can hardly be doubted that the Tchaikowsky competition now lacks both musical standing and the one attribute such a competition must have in order to impress its winners on the musical public—glamor. It must be mentioned also that the Tchaikowsky no longer even includes the first rank of Soviet instrumental talents: conspicuously missing from the list of contestants was the young Evgeny Kissin, the pianist who made a spectacular success in his American appearances this past year and whose recordings of such composers as Rachmaninov are now in great demand.1
So far as the film itself goes, it was obvious that Fertik was not concerned here to show the music being performed, or even the musical thoughts of contestants and jurors about the work on which they were engaged; only the shortest pieces, and not even all of these, were given in full. The odious practice of splicing together different performers into a seamless but nevertheless artificial product was ubiquitous. No living Soviet composers were mentioned, nor was any of their music played. Only two Soviet jurors were mentioned by name, one of them (Evgeny Malinin) being identified as a recipient of the Korean lesson-taker’s largesse. The film in no way dealt with the (at least initially) grand history of the Tchaikowsky competition; to the best of my recollection, there was not a single shot of Cliburn or of his victory.
Fertik’s true subject was not music but the chaos in the Soviet Union. Not a single good word about the formerly all-powerful state was to be heard from anyone, whether contestants, jurors, administrators, or passers-by. The recurring theme of the film was corruption, a state of affairs, one gathered, pandemic in Soviet society. The contestants, whether Soviet or foreign, thought the deck was stacked against them, and that they were being rudely treated as well. Of the two jurors who spoke on camera, one, James Gibb, was harshly condemnatory; the other, Daniel Pollack of the U.S., though not going quite so far, still had nothing favorable to offer about the competition’s management. The administrators too complained about official policy toward the competition, and were negative about the prospect of future competitions. Passers-by all seemed to be dissidents, willing to call into question Stalin, Communism, and socialism, as well as the ruling morality and day-to-day actions of the Soviet state.
Beyond revealing the current sorry state of the Tchaikowsky competition, and the overarching (though hardly sorry) collapse of Soviet authority, the film did manage to make one thing perfectly clear: what is compellingly attractive about contemporary Soviet life are the spunk and brains of the people, the beauty of the music of Tchaikowsky, Scriabin, Prokofiev, and Rachmaninov that they so lovingly claim for their own, the memories and grandeur of the Moscow Conservatory, and the profoundly rich life of such historically feuding parties as the intelligentsia and the church. None of this is in any way the product of Lenin and Stalin, or of Bolshevism. It is instead the residue—tormented, almost destroyed through terror and murder, woefully corrupted, and almost exhausted—of the days before 1914; what remains of that civilization, in music and literature (and dance, too), is everywhere Russian, never Soviet. Difficult as it is to say in our democratic age, even the Romanovs, against whose regime the Revolution was made, were vastly more benign guardians of high culture than their Bolshevik successors. Perhaps the watchword ought to be Russian culture, da; Soviet power, nyet.
1 In this regard, it is significant that as recently as 1962, the Soviet government was able to compel Vladimir Ashkenazy, by then already internationally established as a major pianist, to compete in the Tchaikowsky competition; it was said that the government wanted to make sure that Cliburn's victory in 1958 would be followed by a Soviet winner. In the event, Ashkenazy tied for the first prize with the English pianist John Ogden.