Whether you're seeking tomorrow's stars or just after great music-making, they're worth watching
Opinion isn’t unanimous about competitions. Those who see positives in the pressure (a taste, after all, of what lies ahead throughout a career) are countered by others who feel it’s an artificial way of assessing art. But competitions are given major prominence: at Gramophone, we regularly report on them, and annually focus on the sector in a special supplement. And two competitions this month illustrate why.
The International Tchaikovsky Competition has long been held up as one of the greatest of musical accolades, its winners etched not just on the trophy but in our consciousness. This is, after all, a competition that opened its First Prize alumni list with Van Cliburn and has included John Ogdon, Grigory Sokolov and Daniil Trifonov. And that’s just in the piano category – glimpse at the other categories and the likes of Gidon Kremer, Viktoria Mullova and Deborah Voigt immediately leap out.
But if such a competition has always been a guide to the ones to watch, it’s now, quite literally, a ‘one to watch’. This year, Tchaikovsky performances were broadcast and extensively contextualised on Medici TV, attracting an astonishing 18.5 million streams. Among the presenters was our own James Jolly, and it was in his interview with Freddy Kempf – third place in 1998, the year Denis Matsuev won – that the pianist captured the nuanced openness with which we should approach these events. ‘As a contestant, you’re not competing to get a result,’ he claimed. ‘Most people here, they’re here in order to try and build a career ... It’s amazing to have a competition which can make [from the same year] two great careers with me and Denis.’ I’ve little doubt that we’ll be hearing more from this year’s piano winner, Alexandre Kantorow, who may already be known to readers, not least for his Saint-Saëns concerto album earlier this year (an Editor’s Choice). His winning performance of the Tchaikovsky Second in the final demonstrated a musical brilliance and almost relaxed confidence that rendered it less a pitch for a prize, and more simply an enjoyable performance in its own right.
Meanwhile, the BBC has hosted its equally famed competition, Cardiff Singer of the World. The BBC’s reach is vast and, as with Young Musician of the Year, the coverage embraces this, drawing on the visual language of mainstream television. Ukrainian baritone Andrei Kymach was a deserving winner. But it was the variety of voices on display (both of competitors and commentators), and simply the overriding sense of enjoyment in exploring the art of singing, that defined the competition (which incidentally offers its own example of Freddy Kempf’s point above: 1989, when Dmitri Hvorostovsky beat Bryn Terfel to the Prize.)
This month’s One to Watch is another recent prize recipient about whom we expect to hear more: the violinist Johan Dalene, winner of this year’s Carl Nielsen International Competition. He’s soon to release his debut on BIS, a deal signed prior to his triumph. It’s also on BIS that we’ve already been able to hear Kantorow’s virtuosity. When it comes to pointers for tomorrow’s stars, then, it’s clearly not just competitions we need to look to …
This article appeared in the August 2019 edition of Gramophone, available now