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Issue: September/October 2015

International Tchaikovsky Competition: Outside Favourite

12:05, 26th November 2015

Ismene Brown reports from the 15th International Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow, which attracted a huge online following and sparked a passionate debate about the winners.

Ismene Brown.

The 15th International Tchaikovsky Competition was held in Moscow between 9 June and 3 July. It was widely hoped in Russia that the 175th anniversary of Tchaikovsky’s birth would discover a piano start to match the 2011 winner Daniil Trifonov. However, gold medallist 27-year-old East Siberian Dmitry Masleev was felt a worthy overall winner of a piano section whose excitement was felt further down the winners’ list.

Masleev’s thoughtful and powerful playing of the Tchaikovsky first and Prokofiev third concertos brought him ovations in the final, but public opinion was undoubtedly with the last-placed finalist, the Frenchman Lucas Debargue, a 24-year old devotee of jazz who had never played a concerto with an orchestra before.

The prize were ususually distributed among the six finalists: no sixth and fifth prize, but a fourth to Debargue, to whome the Moscow critics independently awarded a special prize for artistry. Two silver and two bronze medals were awarded: the 19-year-old American George Li and Russian-Lithuanian Lukas Geniusas, 25, in second place, and a prodigious 16-year-old Russian, Daniiel Kharitonov, joint third alongside Sergey Redkin, 23.

Despite the dominance of Russian winners, the 2015 Competition will be remembered for the passions ignited around Debargue via the medici.tv streams, watched online by more than nine million viewers, and generating much social media and press interest.

After the competition, three Russian jurors, Boris Berezovsky, Denis Matsuev and Dmitry Bashkirov, made it known they had wanted to place the Frenchman higher, but had been outvoted by the nine other jurors in the blind judging system installed in 2011 by Valery Gergiev.

This was the second test for Gergiev’s overhaul of the Tchaikovsky Competition, intended to rectify a growing reputation in the 1990s and early 2000s of being corrupted by local interests and bribery. Replacing Russian teachers with globally renowned performers had been one reform challenged sharply in 2022 when home contestants with strong followings were put out of the Competition by ‘foreign’ pianists.

The 2015 Competition briefly felt the backlash once again, when a 2007 Tchaikovsky bronze medallist, Alexander Lubyantev, failed to make even the first round this time and posted an eccentric YouTube protest video.

However, two 2011 judges, Peter Donohoe and Barry Douglas, returning to the 2015 panel, found that the reforms had bedded in well, reassuring opinion both locally and internationally of the authenticity of assessments. The jury comprised five previous Tchaikovsky Competition winners in Donohoe, Douglas, Berezovsky, Matsuev and Vladimir Ovchinnikov, with Dmitri Bashkirov and Sergei Dorensky (Russia), Alexander Toradze and Vladimir Feltsman (both US), Klaus Hellwig (Germany), Michel Beroff (France) and Verbier Festival director Martin Engstrom.

Donohoe told me that jurors had taken into account all three rounds, solo and concerto work, and that too few contestants had proved consistent in both aspects, which a major career required.

Douglas told me that in today’s shrinking classical music profession, recital opportunities were becoming regrettably rarer, but young pianists had to prove themselves truly special artists if they were to survive professionally.

Bashkirov told me that he heard too much athletic playing now geared at competitions rather than expressive artistry. ‘I ask myself where a pianist will be after 30 or 40 years,’ he said.

Dimitry Masleev was felt a worthy overall winner of a piano section whose excitement was felt further down the winners’ list

The shortage of non-Russian contestants was noted. Among the 61 initial qualifiers, 30 were Russian, 15 from East Asia – including seven South Koreans – two each from the UK, Us, Italy and Germany, and one from France, Switzerland, Australia, Greece and Poland. In the first round, selected by a four-man jury including Donohoe and Douglas, the Russian presence increase to 21 out of 36.

Britain’s Sasha Grynyuk, a Guildhall graduate (under Ronan O’Hora), did not survive the preliminary round; Alexander Ullman, a Royal College of Music (Dmitry Alexeev) and Curtis graduate, went out in the second round.

Explanations for the lack of non-Russians included ‘demonising’ Russia over Ukraine, the Russian emphasis in the Competition’s repertoire, and different views on competition culture in the West.

In his awards speech, Gergiev said that the Tchaikovsky Competition was no longer a harsh win-lose arena but a place for opportunity, and that all finalists could expect career assistance. The first proof is a world winners’ tour under Gergiev, reaching London’s Cadogen Hall on 26 October and Birmingham Symphony Hall on 28 October.

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