First of all, it's sad. In the past, British musicians - well, British pianists - have enjoyed an almost bizarre record of success at this contest. John Ogdon, John Lill, Peter Donohoe, Barry Douglas (if he doesn't mind me including him - he's from Belfast) and Freddy Kempff have all shot to fame under its auspices, either by winning or by not winning, but at any rate, by reaching the final and attracting a strong, healthy following among the audience. But all of these were a good while ago. So what's happened?
It's easy to fall back on the old chestnuts. Eg, the malaise in British attitude towards music, musicians and training. When we come up against competitors from places with better systems, we're nowhere. Our kids don't start learning instruments young enough. We have no consistent network of free music schools. As for the Associated Board exams, don't get me started. Music for British kids: a nice pursuit for amateurs or an extra line on the CV, or a way to get cheaper private education. And it's just not done in Britain to be really, seriously, superlatively good at music or, indeed, very much else.
But - is it us or them? Norman Lebrecht has some dubious news from the cello section today. Furthermore, we could ask why our top British young pianist, Benjamin Grosvenor, 18, is not taking part. Could it be that he, or any other thrilling young musicians in Britain, did not even think of applying? Could it be that they would prefer not to touch any competition with the proverbial barge pole? Benjamin is on the BBC New Generation Artists scheme; he's been featured on the Imagine series on TV (when he was 11) and his first CD This and That, produced originally for a music club rather than a major label, drew gasps of wonder from the critics that many older musicians would sort of give their right hand for. But it would be no wonder if gifted youngsters today were to look at the workings of music competitions and decide it is just not worth putting themselves through all that.
I asked Valery Gergiev a little about his chairmanship of the Tchaikovsky Competition when we met last month. Here is what he said - direct quote from my transcript.
JD: ...there can be a perception amongst young musicians that competitions are in some way "fixed"...
VG: Oh no - the screening jury has certainly less Russian - there are very, very good professionals representing Europe, America, Asia and Russia, but absolutely no way will it be a competition between two professors of the Moscow Conservatory, definitely not. I am making a statement because I have a lot to lose myself if things go wrong and while I am there it will not happen. But the screening jury is working already and there’s a wonderful talent coming from all over Europe, Asia and America, so they mustn’t worry.
The proof, I guess, will be in the poppyseed cake. Meanwhile, there are musicians out in the big wide world enjoying lavish careers after winning top competitions, yet whose musicianship, IMHO, is shallow, limited, dull, self-obsessed and sometimes kind of unpleasant. They can certainly play all the notes and audiences insist on flocking to hear them. But all you have to do is put on a recording of Cortot or Lipatti alongside one of theirs and note the contrast. Please, Valery, make sure they get it right this time. And meanwhile, why don't you pop along and hear some of Benjamin's next concerts?