The Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow - the Final Battle for the Holy Grail

I have been so busy with my own researches on my forgotten Australian concert pianist and writing a recreation of his life in the 1920s I have only been able to watch the competition in fits and starts. However the Archive link on ParaClassics menu is a very useful catch up but why did they remove the finalists' concerto recordings apart from the Mozart? I would love to have compared them in my own time. One cannot remember the finer details in musical interpretations of a number of supremely outstanding finalists.

How the jury deal with talent of this high order I have no idea - certainly much of it must be in the final judgement one of personal taste followed by a compromise collective decision which is seldom fair but will never entirely disappoint.


Alexander Romanovsky is a magnificent aristocratic presence at the keyboard with the superb technique and deep musicality we have come to expect historically from  so many glorious Ukrainian pianists. His Tchaikovsky concerto was noble and monumental with moments of great lyricism. The Rachmaninov Third idiomatic and superb. His articulation glitters like gold. Tremendous command of the instrument and music. Surely one of the strong contenders for the first prize.

Alexei Chernov is such a different personality but grand and magnificent in an entirely different way. He reminds me on occasion of Grigory Sokolov who won the Third Tchaikovsky Competition at the age of 16 in 1966. Emil Gilels who headed the jury gave him a standing ovation - an unprecedented gesture by a jury member before or since. There are pianists and there is Sokolov. Chernov should be magnificent in the Brahms.

I felt his Tchaikovsky concerto showed a fine communication with the orchestra and conductor, not always the case with Romanovsky who seemed somewhat detached. Chernov did not quite rise to the accomplished technical heights and refinement of Romanovsky but what are we talking about here anyway? If you have ever studied the instrument seriously every competitor in the final has achieved the miraculously unachievable. His Tchaikovsky concerto had moments of sublime magnificence as he took such a controlled, considered and imposing tempo. The Russian audience seem to have a deep understanding and sympathy with him. Yes, he is a very strong contender for this Gold Medal - as I said let's hear the Brahms.

Yeol Eum Son is without doubt one of the finest pianists in terms of sheer scintillating sound, tone and technical accomplishment that I have ever heard. She understands large musical structures and how to hold them together utterly convincingly. One has shivers running up and down one's spine when one encounters her playing - a feeling Nabokov believed heralded the presence of great art. Her fiery and ardent sexuality was forcibly transmitted through the Tchaikovsky concerto and rendered me breathless on occasion.

And yet.....and yet.....it is as if she loves the music almost too much. Is this a meaningful remark or a nonsense? Is it possible to play with too much love? For me in the Rachmaninov Third Piano Concerto she extracted the last ounce of sentiment and passion from this music which sometimes became uncomfortable for me - almost mannered rubato, overly savage contrasts, holding back a phrase almost to stasis.

It is often said that composers do not necessarily play their own compositions well. However when a composer is also a great pianist as Rachmaninov was then listening to his own recordings of his concerti is very instructive. They indicate what he was trying to achieve, what actually drove his creative ideas in these monumental works. He was not an overly sentimental composer I feel (listen to his Chopin interpretations) although the way he is performed everywhere would give the lie to this idea. Someone once asked Stravinsky what would be played on space stations in the future. He answered not Stockhausen or Boulez but 'super hi-fi Rachmaninov'. Very wise remark. Consider the 1936 recording of Horowitz in this same work - he winds up the tension almost unbearably but is never mannered or sentimental - simply incandescent. 'He fell upon the work like a tiger!' Rachmaninov remarked of Horowitz in this concerto. All these remarks are dealing at an impossibly high level of performance accomplishment remember.

For me the finest musician in the competition is without doubt Daniil Trifonov. He is a great poet of the piano and is entirely possessed by the spirit of whatever music he is playing. He communicates his profound emotional commitment effortlessly to the audience who respond accordingly. His technique is never in question but like all the greatest technicians and virtuosi it is not on overt display but remains a brilliant, flexible and willing servant to the music. With the webcast coverage one can see his pedalling which is a wonder to behold. His use of the flutter pedal in the Tchaikovsky was a virtuoso effort and the sound produced was remarkable. This afternoon he plays the Chopin E minor concerto Op. 11 which for me is one of the great performances of this early work. I heard his interpretation at the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw last year. His instinctive understanding of the reverie, the intensity and abstracted illusions of youthful love in the Romance - Larghetto movement is desperately moving and absolutely unique in my experience. Do not miss this.

And yes, I definitely think he should win the competition (as I thought he should have won in Warsaw although Bozhanov was the genius there). But is he a 'Competition Winner' type as Avdeeva undoubtedly was from her very first note?

Ah yes...we have had this dilemma of choice with distinguished juries, the great pianists sitting in judgement and arguing their own deeply held musical passions and beliefs...points being accumulated...decisions made...the arguments begin...

Whoever wins from these finalists they are already all winners at the very highest levels of accomplishment - not a truism trotted out by an uncommitted, indecisive critic but they really are and should all have distinguished musical careers.

I would have made a Faustian pact with the devil to play like any of them.

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