Musical Moscow honours its favourite son

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The Independent Online
MOSCOW'S first international Rachmaninov Piano Competition, which launched a year of celebrations marking the 120th anniversary of the composer's birth, reached its climax yesterday as eight finalists from Russia, Ukraine and Japan battled for a top prize of dollars 10,000 ( pounds 7,000). The jury will announce its decision by this morning in time for a concert by the winner and the four runners-up tonight.

The two-week competition represented the fulfilment of a long dream for Moscow music professors. Because Rachmaninov was an emigre, who left Russia in 1917 and died in New York in 1943 without ever returning, his music was regarded with suspicion by Soviet bureaucrats and its public performance restricted. The professors were allowed to teach Rachmaninov, but what they really wanted was a competition to honour him and find the young pianists who could best interpret his moody, romantic works.

The first step was made in 1983 when Professor Sergei Dorensky, a member of the jury, was at a meeting with the then Soviet culture minister, Pyotr Demichev. 'It was a very boring meeting,' said Professor Dorensky. 'We were all making empty speeches, including myself. And then it came to me like lightning. I must raise the question of the competition. It is now or never. I told Demichev: 'It is a shame. Rachmaninov is a holy name for us. There are Rachmaninov competitions abroad and yet we cannot have one.' And do you know, he said: 'Write me a letter about this, I will support you.' This was before Gorbachev, but you could call it an early example of glasnost.'

At first, the competition involved only Soviet musicians. This year, for the first time, they invited pianists from abroad, although citizens of former Soviet republics outnumbered foreign hopefuls by more than two to one. Britain sent Anthony Hughes from Cheshire, a graduate of the Royal Northern College of Music, and German- born Eva-Maria Alexandre, who studied at the Royal College of Music in London. Fanny Waterman, the legendary piano teacher who founded the Harveys Leeds International Piano Competition, joined the jury.

Rachmaninov's grandson Alexander put up the money for the first prize. But the organisers bemoaned the lack of funds, a problem in the Russian arts as subsidies have dried up.

Unlike the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, which tests virtuosity in music by a range of composers, this tournament concentrated only on Rachmaninov. The entrants, aged between 18 and 35, had to play preludes and etudes in the first round, song accompaniments in the second and a full piano concerto or Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini in the final.

In the past, Soviet music competitions have been accused of bias towards home performers. There has been no suggestion of unfairness this time. But, given that the Russians have invested such hopes in this venture and that they regard Rachmaninov's music as the highest expression of the Russian soul, the odds seem stacked against a non-Russian emerging victorious.