What we learned about the Russians at Tchaikovsky 2019

Now the 16th Tchaikovsky Competition is over, we can take a slightly more distanced and nuanced approach. This site is sometimes criticised by Russian-based for being anti-Russian.

That’s ridiculous.

Many of our favourite living artists are Russian – Trifonov, Kissin, Igor Levit, Berezovsky, the two Petrenkos, Mullova, Margulis, Leonskaya – not to mention the immortals Slava, Oistrakh, Richter, Gilels, Nikolaevya and too many others to mention. No nation has yielded such a deep and persistent tradition of classical genius as Russia. How could any writer about music possibly be anti-Russian.

Anti-Putin is another matter.

What we saw at the 2019 Tchaikovsky Competition was the pervasive effect of Putin’s corruption on the musical process.

The competition was chaired by Putin’s henchman Valery Gergiev, a man who has championed Putin’s crimes in Crimea, Syria and beyond.

Gergiev appointed three trusted pals to chair the major sections of the competition – his swimming-mate Denis Matsuev at the cack-handed piano section’ his Verbier host Martin Engstroem at the violin jury (Engstroem hired Gergiev as his Verbier music director) and Carnegie Hall chief Clive Gillinson to preside over the cellos (Gillinson, in his former job, hored Gergiev as music director of the LSO). So it goes.

No eyebrows were raised, therefore, when the violin professor Boris Kushnir and Mikhail Kopelman, his string quartet partner, were allowed to sway the violin jury in favour of Kushnir’s pupil, the nondescript Sergei Dogadin, a young man who has won several competitions under Kushnir’s eye without managing to establish an international career.

Similarly, there were no protests when the juries were either all-male or majority-male – and none of the winners, needless to say, was a woman. That’s how power works in Putin’s Russia. The power cliques do as they please, without protest.

Russian media that once reported musical events with a measure of objectivity have been tamed or silenced. Russian musicians who try to find an independent voice are kicked out of competitions at an early stage. The Tchaikovsky Competition this year served to advance the cause of mediocrity. The famous Moscow audience was – so far as we could tell on television – comparatively subdued. Putin and his puppets are suffocating the system.

Those of us who love Russia and its music have witnessed a major episode in its decline.