Music and sport: brain versus brawn? Not really: the old contrast is blurring, nowhere more than at the piano. It's partly to do with spiralling keyboard athletics, but mostly thanks to competitions, which blend beauty contest and prize fight with the exhilaration of the Derby. And competitions are proliferating like mad: there was one in Meknes last year, there's one in Macao next month, and there are over 100 regular jousts in Europe alone. Ever since Mozart trounced Clementi, and Beethoven drove his chief rival howling from the room, joust has been the mot juste for this unforgiving aesthetic combat.
This week the jousting has been in Fort Worth, the Texas cow-town which, every four years, hosts the glitziest piano competition of them all. When the young winner of the Van Cliburn is announced tomorrow, he - I don't think the solitary she in the final has the ghost of a chance - will walk off with a cash prize of $20,000, plus a two-year concert programme worth all the money in the world to anyone playing this desperately overcrowded game. The attendant media circus may be small by Olympic standards, but it has Olympic intensity, with live television and radio coverage, documentaries galore, and a press corps chasing every scrap of gossip - pianistic or personal - like a plague of locusts.
The competitors have made their job easy, coming fully equipped with colourful backgrounds, off-beat hobbies and weird superstitions. The Israeli favourite sits on a shekel when he competes; one of the Russians makes sure his wife is holding a lucky troll while he plays. Two of the Russian contestants are married to one another, and even chose to play the same piece; the fact that the husband got knocked out in the first round, while the wife has made it to the final, has generated miles of breathless, Hello-style copy, hardly hampered by their willingness to indulge in photogenic clinches at the merest flash of a camera.
But the press also needs tears, and tears it has got. Stanislav Ioudenitch, from Tashkent, played a sensational first round and was tipped to win. He then poured boiling water over his left hand while trying to make tea at six in the morning, and is now out of the race: Freudian slips seldom come this glaring. Ioudenitch is studying in Italy, has not seen his baby daughter for a year, and is unable to contact his phoneless wife in Moscow. He seems astonishingly cheerful nevertheless, and has become the good cause of the week: everyone wants to help him.
In Fort Worth, that "everyone" means hundreds of housewives, teachers and bankers who give their services free to make the competition run smoothly; it means the "host moms" who harbour the contestants; it also means scores of seriously rich patrons, for whom this quadrennial bash offers a chance for some competitively showy Southern hospitality. I went to a "lake-party" at a sleepy hamlet called Dosier Cove: the invitation said "casual", but I've seldom seen such a riot of chiffon silk and heavy jewellery. The principal guest came in his helicopter: Van Cliburn himself, immaculate in DJ - he never wears anything else - and holding court like a nabob.
Van - a usefully resonant Christian name - neither created this competition, nor has any hand in running it, but he is in every sense its presiding genius. It was set up in his honour when he astounded the world by winning the inaugural Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958. The Russians took this lanky Baptist boy to their hearts; New York gave him a ticker- tape welcome home. He went on to pioneer the cultural-diplomacy game, playing for presidents and foreign heads of state, and was by any standards - the live recordings prove it - a magnificent exponent of the Romantic repertoire. In his forties, he suddenly quit for what he describes as a "sabbatical" and, though he still does occasional concerts, he's now a semi-recluse, sharing his mansion with six Steinways, a Bechstein, a dog, and the ghost of his adored mother Rildia Bee, who taught him piano from the age of three, dominated his life, and died three years ago, aged 97.
For all its razzmatazz, the Cliburn doesn't have a great record for spotting talent: with the exception of Radu Lupu, Cristina Ortiz and Barry Douglas, most of the starry names that grace its lists had already been spotted elsewhere. And some of its prize-winners have turned into prize embarrassments. At this year's opening bash, Alexei Sultanov - gold medallist two competitions ago - lurched to the microphone and declared that the world contained just three "supreme beings": Van Cliburn, Horowitz, and himself. The mike was wrenched away, but he lurched after it and continued in similarly drunken vein. "The trouble with some of these Russians," a jury member confided to me, "is that they can't handle success."
"Musicians shouldn't have to compete," says Richard Rodzinski, the Cliburn Competition director. "But since competition is part of their lives - from music school, to getting jobs, to keeping those jobs in an over-saturated market - what we do is not so heinous." The Cliburn, he argues, is a necessary showcase for young pianists, and a way of finding those with the stamina to succeed. Competitions, he adds, are starting to replace straight recitals - "with the extra element of suspense". And he's downplaying the notion of rank by talking of a Cliburn "festival": playing here, he says, is a lot less stressful than playing at Carnegie Hall.
But stress there certainly is, as Louise Canafax, the "backstage mom", confirms. She sits in the wings with her armoury of bandages, antibiotics, nail-clippers, and headache pills, plus honey and sugar for energy, and dispenses a graciously Southern brand of stress-therapy. Do people ever get out of control?
"Well, one girl wasn't happy with her performance, and left the stage in the middle of a piece." Did she finally continue? "We had a little difficulty getting her back on. And when she'd finished, the jury said it might have been better if she hadn't." Where, I enquire, is that girl now? "I'd rather not say." Sounds like we're getting into grim stuff here.
As one watches the semi-finalists going through their paces, one realises how gruelling it is: a full-scale chamber work; a 75-minute recital performed without a break; and two concertos on the trot for the final. What are the jury looking for? "The important artist, who can look into a score and find things we have not heard before," says Menahem Pressler, one of the world's most eminent chamber musicians. "Have we got the one? That is always our question. We didn't find him last time around."
A solo recital may lay talent bare, but what can we learn from a concerto? Ian Hobson, the only Brit on the jury, says the main thing a concerto reveals is negative. "With so much riding on it, and an orchestra to dominate, can you avert disaster?"
So have we got the one? I've seen an exquisitely talented musician crash in flames when nerves got to her, and I've heard nine young players who would not be out of place at the Wigmore Hall. This year's crop were selected from live auditions held all round the globe, and the standard is unusually high. Like other observers, I was shocked that the finalists did not include a marvellous young Russian called Viktor Chestopal. I was also shocked that they did, on the other hand, include Miss Skanavi, whose playing - let's be honest - is less distinguished than her looks.
I don't think Jon Nakamatsu (America's last hope) or Italy's Filippo Gamba - who looks like Brahms, and plays Brahms as though he'd composed the music himself - will win, but three other finalists would each make an exhilarating choice. Jan Gottlieb Jiracek is a German crowd-puller who can produce both wizardry and true musical wisdom. Aviram Reichert, a debonair Israeli with a passion for Formula One, is an impeccable classicist in the grand tradition. And Yakov Kasman from Moscow is a keyboard magician whose Haydn, Schumann, and Prokofiev are alike masterly. He's an untamed outsider, a born showman with a furious will to win - and, if he does so, fireworks are guaranteed. If I had a vote, he'd get it.
Van Cliburn Competition website: http://www. cliburn.com or http://www.audionet.com
`Van Cliburn in Moscow', live recordings of Rachmaninov's Paganini Rhapsody and Brahms's Piano Concerto No 2, is on RCA Victor Red Seal (09026-62695- 2)