Tchaikovsky key to success

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MOSCOW - A British pianist who was overcome with nerves at the Tchaikovsky Competition made an astonishing recovery to become the darling of Moscow and a hot favourite for a prize, writes Helen Womack .

Robert Markham, 25, from Beverley, was pale when he took the stage of the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory in this week's first round. A few notes into his offering, Bach's Prelude and Fugue in A Flat Major, he stopped, looked up at the portrait of Tchaikovsky for inspiration, down at the keyboard in despair, muttered to himself and walked off.

But after a few minutes he returned, beaming, and gave such a spectacular performance that the judges congratulated themselves on granting him a second chance. Critics praised his rendering of an etude by Rachmaninov, a composer so quintessentially Russian that many claim only a person with a Slav soul can play him.

The contest continues, but unless a pianist even more brilliant comes along, Markham is unlikely to be knocked off a provisional list of those going forward to the second round. If he reaches the finals, he will have to play two full piano concertos with an orchestra.

The Tchaikovsky Competition, held every four years, is one of the world's most prestigious music contests. 'The competition can make or break a pianist; his career can literally hang on it,' said Irina Glushenkova, a pianist in the audience. Most of the competitors in the piano section are men. 'To be a concert pianist, you need incredible strength of arm; it's like a sport,' she said. 'I'm sorry to have to admit it but women are generally more suited to chamber music.'