Some exports from Moscow carry a health warning, but the one we can be sure of is classical music, particularly when this comes in the form of winners from the International Tchaikovsky Competition.
Over its 50-year span this quadrennial contest has established itself as classical music’s Olympics: Dmitri Shostakovich, Maria Callas, Aram Khachaturian, and Mstislav Rostropovich were on early juries, with winners including the pianists Van Cliburn and Vladimir Ashkenazy, and violinists Gidon Kremer and Viktoria Mullova. The Barbican was packed (and royalty was in attendance) to hear this year’s winners, with support from the London Symphony Orchestra and Valery Gergiev on the podium.
The fact that the Moscow jury had not awarded two of the top four prizes in the singing section indicated that standards were being kept high. Just how high was apparent when the gold medallist, 27-year-old Sunyoung Seo from South Korea, sang the Letter Scene from Tchaikovsky’s ‘Eugene Onegin’. Running the whole gamut of human emotion, this aria makes a great showcase for a great voice, and this comely soprano brought a big and sumptuous sound to the task. Gloriously even from top to bottom, her voice had an unforced bel canto expressiveness, and she shaped her long-breathed phrases – and marked the music’s mood-changes - with impeccable grace. Now she should do the role for real at Covent Garden.
No surprise that the cello gold-medallist should come from Yerevan: Armenia’s capital is still a hotbed of string talent, despite that country’s now-grinding poverty. And 23-year-old Narek Hakhnazaryan launched into Tchaikovsky’s ‘Variations on a Rococo Theme’ with a tone whose beauty shone all the more brightly for its restraint. Every nuance of this subtle work was lovingly observed, and when he did let rip it was with blazing virtuosity. I would now like to hear what this boy can do with Bach’s solo suites: he could certainly give Yo-Yo Ma a run for his money.
Finally we got Tchaikovsky’s ‘Piano Concerto No 1’ courtesy of a pianist from Nizhniy Novgorod, but the way Daniil Trifonov played, you’d say he was a mature master, rather than a mere 20-year-old. Power in spades, crystalline passage-work, and a pearlised singing tone: he’s already got it all, and his encore – Liszt’s ‘La Campanella’ – had both flawless delicacy, and an engaging modesty.
In short, this year’s jury knew what it was doing.