At this year’s quadrennial International Tchaikovsky Competition, the judges awarded the $30,000 first prize in both the violin and cello categories. Tim Homfray attended the violin section in Moscow, while Andrew Mellor visited St Petersburg to hear the cellists – and both were impressed by what they saw
First-prize winner of the violin category Sergei Dogadin showed terrific control © International Tchaikovsky Competition
Can it really be four years since the last International Tchaikovsky Competition, when I listened to six cellists in three days play his Rococo Variations in St Petersburg? Yes it is, and here I am again, this time in Moscow, to hear the composer’s Violin Concerto six times in three days of finals.
First, though, I was asked to do a mini interview about the competition for the Ukrainian TV channel Kultura. The fact that I hadn’t heard anything yet was not considered an obstacle. I then proceeded to the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall for the first night of the final round (25 June).
This is a splendid hall, and very white. White walls, balconies, Corinthian columns, balustrades, even chair backs. In front of the organ pipes at the back of the platform hung a giant poster of Tchaikovsky glaring over at a cameraman on the balcony.
Below him, the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra assembled on the platform, before conductor Yuri Simonov entered with the first of the six finalists, the Japanese-American Mayumi Kanagawa (24). Before performing the Tchaikovsky, each contestant had to play one of the last three Mozart concertos. Kanagawa opened with K219 in A major, with a bright-toned, happy first movement, urged forward with many an accent; a great stream of elegantly moulded melody in the Adagio; and rhythmic élan in the rondo finale, with decisive attack in the central Turkish section and a scattering of added dotted rhythms.
In Tchaikovsky’s Concerto Kanagawa’s legato gifts were to the fore. Both main subjects in the first movement flowed seamlessly, with nary an audible bow change, and she later generated dramatic impetus with impeccable spiccato. In the otherwise affecting Canzonetta she inserted an unneeded distraction by taking her mute off halfway through and putting it on the conductor’s stand. She powered through the finale with such eagerness that she sometimes seemed to start the next phrase before she had quite finished the previous one, and smiled happily throughout.
At 28, the Belgian player Marc Bouchkov is already quite a familiar figure. He appeared rakishly dressed down in white shirt with tails out and collar open, and performed the opening movement of Mozart’s K219 with the easy authority and flamboyance of a seasoned campaigner. After a genial, undulating Adagio he produced almost operatic drama in the finale.
Bouchkov opened the Tchaikovsky in vibrant style before setting off like a dashing gallant towards the second subject. This was technicolour playing, not always immaculate, but certainly invigorating. The third movement, too, was high on character, with constant little touches of rubato and a digging bow. But technical errors started to appear, and he lost his way at one point, from which he recovered with a smile. It wasn’t a CD-quality performance, but was certainly a brave and enthralling one.
The following day I got the hang of the Moscow Metro – just in time, as it rained relentlessly for the rest of the competition. So I arrived dry to hear the first of the home-grown finalists, 31-year-old Aylen Pritchin. He opted for Mozart’s Third Violin Concerto K216, which he played with big, beautiful sound and vibrato. It always seemed to be the same vibrato, set in its ways rather than an expressive resource, but his playing was nonetheless shapely and eloquent.
Pritchin produced a gorgeous veiled tone in the second subject of the Tchaikovsky first movement, and there was some truly gentle playing amid the bravura rhetoric. He got up a fine head of steam in the home straight, bringing genuine contrast with the second movement, which was tender and thoughtful. The finale was crisp and vibrant, with resolute character and just the right amount of soulful indulgence.
After the interval, the Czech player Milan Al-Ashhab (26) provided the first appearance of Mozart’s Fourth Concerto in D major K218. His playing was crisp and colourful in the first movement, with sharpness of rhythm and vigour. The phrasing in the Andante cantabile was natural and expressive (Auer’s cadenza at the end seemed overly complex). The finale was a jaunty dance with twinkling colours.
Al-Ashhab had a lightness of touch (largely missing from Pritchin), which also served him well in the Tchaikovsky. The dotted rhythms tripped along, and the staccato semiquavers leading into the first big tutti had a spring in their step. There was a sense of private musing in the second movement, before the finale took wing, and here again he had an almost Mendelssohnian lightness of touch, along with a neat rhythmic sense, so that his rubato always felt right and inevitable.
The youngest finalist, 19-year-old South Korean Donghyun Kim, opened the last evening. He had been here before: he was a first-prize winner in the junior section of the competition in 2015. His performance of Mozart’s Fourth Concerto was refreshingly simple, with shapely phrasing, beautiful and flowing. The last movement sparkled. He played the music the way it goes, without imposing his own musical authority, although he did provide his own rather good cadenzas. It all worked seamlessly.
At the opening of the Tchaikovsky a young man in the audience got up, gave a short speech and blew bubbles before being led away. Kim played on with a sangfroid which matched the maturity of his performance, combining consummate musical and technical command. The cadenza was magnificent, fluent and brilliant. The sheer drive and excitement he generated in the finale was rooted in his obvious feel for the rhythmic heart of every phrase. Whatever the results of the competition, this is a young man to watch.
Finally, there was Russian Sergey Dogadin (pictured right), 30 years old and with an impressive track record of competition success. In Mozart’s K216 he, too, showed a winning lightness of touch: he floated; he had a nice way with sotto voce. There were exquisite sections in the second movement, and the finale was poised and charming.
Dogadin showed terrific control and shaping of Tchaikovsky’s great paragraphs in the opening movement. He went at it in fine virtuoso style, wielding the bow with dramatic authority. Following the intimate, confessional Canzonetta, the finale was hot-blooded, heart-on-sleeve – and a big heart at that.
Dogadin won, and deservedly so. He was the first gold medallist in quite a while: the first prize was not awarded in the last two violin competitions (nor in three earlier ones). I was a little surprised that Bouchkov came second, given his hiccups in the Tchaikovsky, but he had tremendous flair. Kim was third: excellent – I want to hear more of him. Kanagawa and Pritchin came joint fourth, and Al-Ashhab was sixth.
At the prize-giving ceremony, Martin Engstroem, the chair of the violin jury (which consisted of Salvatore Accardo, Kristóf Baráti, Michael Haefliger, Mikhail Kopelman, Sergei Krylov, Boris Kuschnir, Elmar Oliveira, Alexei Shalashov, Dmitry Sitkovetsky, Akiko Suwanai and Viktor Tretiakov) said, ‘For violinists this has been a very good year.’ Indeed so.
First-prize winning cellist Zlatomir Fung played to his strengths in Shostakovich’s Second Concerto © Tchaikovsky International Competition
our of the six finalists in the cello discipline of the 16th Tchaikovsky Competition were good enough to have walked away with first prize, even if it was clear why the judges opted for the American Zlatomir Fung (pictured right). In every sense, in St Petersburg we were a long way from the respective drama and controversy of the violin and piano finals taking place in Moscow. The result reflected it. The winner chose not a showpiece (as far as any cello concerto can be such), but a simmering, unsettling and predominantly quiet work – the second of Shostakovich’s concertos. At the concert hall named after the same composer, the audience appreciated Fung’s risky choice and was visibly moved by a performance that proved there wasn’t so much risk after all. He was only the second finalist to be treated to a rhythmic handclap from the audience, after that for the Russian Anastasia Kobekina the previous evening (she was placed third).
Choosing the right repertoire is strategy in itself, and with the Shostakovich, Fung played to his strengths – among them the sort of ability to control the score’s slow-burn agenda that you would normally associate with one beyond his years (at 20, he was the second-youngest finalist after 17-year-old Yibai Chen from China). With no orchestral introduction to steady his nerves and settle a not entirely concentrated audience in sweltering St Petersburg, he crept into the concerto’s opening bars with steel, plotting the first movement’s long line with poise and patience. He was on top of the atmosphere in the curious dance with the tambourine at the start of the finale, and his care with expression meant he came out of it fighting, with yet another tone colour to show us.
Many would have suspected something special was on the way following Fung’s performance of the prescribed work, Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations. Of all the contestants, Fung appeared the least eager to please as he played with the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, extending their yawning opening gestures with an accomplished nonchalance bordering on the louche. It was a performance in which the soloist prioritised his own enjoyment – which is fine if you have the nerve for it, and he did. Fine also if you have the quality of sound, and that Fung most certainly does have: a cultivated, deep yet unforced voice blessed with a legato that persisted even in the cadenzas, where Fung allowed us fleeting glimpses of his passionate soul. Sometimes, that legato could compromise clarity and accuracy: in the final variation, his tuning wavered.
For those who would have liked more red blood, there was another finalist who provided it while retaining soulful composure and boasting something of Fung’s delectable sound. Kobekina (24) offered up an Elgar Cello Concerto with simmering passion and real architectural strength – linking up the concerto’s varied ideas where the orchestra could appear unconvinced or even confused (there was one unanimously incorrect entry from a group of wind players). Kobekina is a player with huge potential and almost overwhelming sincerity. She gave us surely the most reactive Rococo Variations, cocking an ear towards the winds, shifting colour and interpreting more overtly, though it came after an admittedly stiff start.
The top three finalists happened to play consecutively, and it was second-placed Santiago Cañón-Valencia (24), from Colombia, who preceded Kobekina on the middle evening of three. Bejewelled with multiple finger rings and with his black hair bound tightly in a bun, he cut a dashing figure on the stage of the St Petersburg Philharmonia’s Grand Hall and enjoyed posing for photos with the competition’s legions of young followers after his performance – for a good deal of which his eyes were apparently fixed closed.
Cañón-Valencia may be a natural performer on and off stage, but his Rococo Variations trod a central line that shied away from revelatory exposure, of himself or of the score, and couldn’t match the conversational lightness of Fung’s performance. The Colombian got his teeth into Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto, retaining a certain beauty of tone in the first movement but conveying the all-important claustrophobia at the same time. In that respect, he could give the impression of wanting more confrontation and imposition from the St Petersburg PO and Nikolai Alexeev, a restrained conductor from whom less sometimes really is less. Cañón-Valencia got his way in the cadenzas, into which he breathed variegated colours and true humanity, and by the conclusive chase-down he had even managed to cajole the orchestra into bringing him something of a fight. But it was easy to conclude that the Colombian simply wasn’t in his preferred environment, as much as he sucked up the attention of the competition’s youthful fans.
The all-cellist jury chaired by Clive Gillinson – it featured Mario Brunello, Myung-Wha Chung, Karine Georgian, Ralph Kirshbaum, Mischa Maisky, Truls Mørk, Daniel Müller-Schott, Sergei Roldugin, Tsuyoshi Tsutsemi, Jan Vogler, István Várdai and Jian Wang – might have been on the lookout for a ready-made soloist rather than exceptional potential, as there was plenty of the latter in the lower-placed finalists. It wouldn’t have surprised me had fifth-placed 17-year-old Chen won outright. He is a player of huge charisma, prone to demonstrative gestures and clearly aware of his talents. His choice of the Prokofiev Symphony-Concerto – a piece that needs its soloist to be more than a soloist – reinforced as much but showed that, despite a big sound and huge presence, he was prone to occasional bluster and was often a stranger to intimacy.
He is certainly one to watch, as is Finnish Senja Rummukainen (another 24-year-old at the time of the competition), who played straight before Chen on the opening night of the finals and whose own sotto voce sound reinforced the sheer heft of his. I have heard Rummukainen before, in delectable chamber music and small-scale concertante performances; she has lots to offer the world stage but there is no doubting that the scale of her sound counted against her here in both the Tchaikovsky and in Dvořák’s Concerto. She was positioned sixth. We heard the Dvořák, too, from fourth-placed South Korean Taeguk Mun (25), who opted to play his concerto first and the Rococo Variations second. Like Rummukainen, he used the slow movement’s bewitching poise to cast a spell over the large hall. But his tuning was shaky in the faster passages. If he wanted to clear his head before the divertissement footing of the Tchaikovsky, it worked. His performance was warm, sensitive and humorous enough even to raise a smile and some lightness from Alexeev on the podium. No mean feat.