Probably no music competition has had so auspicious a beginning as the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958, even if awarding the top piano prize to a young American, Van Cliburn, irked the Soviet establishment. Through the vicissitudes of Russian life the quadrennial event has endured, although it has been five years since the last competition, the year’s delay attributed by some to competition from the 2006 Fifa World Cup.

Controversies big and small, sometimes averted, are part and parcel of the Tchaikovsky. This year, for only the third time in its history, a first prize was not awarded in piano, a measure that might have inspired strong feelings. Yet the announcement brought neither stunned silence nor a smattering of boos but a hearty round of applause. The audience, like the jury, does not want to see the prize diluted.

As with the 2002 competition, the vast majority of contestants, who numbered 202, came from the former Soviet Union or Asia. The meagre European and US representation is probably due to the existence of many competitions closer to home and to a growing recognition that competition victories are not the only path to career success. According to the American pianist Gary Graffman, a member of the piano jury and former president of the Curtis Institute of Music, where he remains on the faculty, “when we have an extraordinary talent, we alert the concert managers and work with them. Competitions are things students usually decide to enter on their own after visiting websites.”

Then, too, there are the usual charges that competitions esteem technique over artistry and stifle individuality. Yet an event such as the Tchaikovsky is also a kind of festival. Moscow’s normal musical life is virtually suspended during the Tchaikovsky, in part because the competition commandeers the main concert halls for its four divisions, which in addition to piano include violin, cello and voice. The event ties up the city’s orchestras too, several of which support the contestants in the final rounds of concertos or arias. And fighting the crowds to enter the Moscow Conservatory for the first night of the piano finals, you’d think Sviatoslav Richter had returned from the dead to give a recital.

Because one cannot take in everything, I concentrated on singers and pianists. All six of the piano finalists, each of whom played the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto in B flat minor and a concerto of his choice, had technique to burn, yet there was a dispiriting interpretive sameness. The leader of the pack, who thus received the silver (rather than gold) medal, was Miroslav Kultyshev, 21, from St Petersburg, who would have received my vote too, given the consistently handsome tone he brought to the Tchaikovsky Concerto and the lyricism of his account of Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto. At the final concert of laureates, when other performers sounded shellshocked, he energised the evening with a glowing performance of the last two movements of Prokofiev’s Seventh Piano Sonata. It was not surprising that the jury members in favour of not awarding a top prize prevailed by only a single vote.

The situation was rather different in the vocal competition, where many of the contestants still sounded like students, their artistry not yet fully formed. But this helped to cast the female gold medal winner, the splendid Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova, 27, in sharper relief. Fortunately, I heard her in the second round, which included a dazzling account of “Bel raggio lusinghier” from Rossini’s Semiramide. Her beautifully focused yet nicely rounded soprano suggests a young Edita Gruberová, and she went on to deliver formidable accounts of arias from La traviata and Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Golden Cockerel” in the finals (perhaps she will come to realise that “Sempre libera” sounds better without an interpolated E flat).

Shagimuratova outclassed the male gold medallist, the Ukrainian bass Alexander Tsymbalyuk, 31, who offered robust accounts of arias from Verdi’s Ernani and Tchaikovsky’s Mazeppa. The results suggest western opera scouts are doing their job well, for Shagimuratova is a member of the Houston Grand Opera Studio, he a regular at the Hamburg Staatsoper. For anyone wondering what a singer such as Shagimuratova hopes to gain by participating, she had an answer: “You have no idea how many proposals to sing I’ve received since the results were announced.” Yet it is the exposure an event such as the Tchaikovsky brings, and not the result, that makes the difference.

The other star to emerge was Mayuko Kamio, 21, from Japan, who took the gold medal in violin. Regrettably, I heard her only at the awards ceremony, where she played as glorious an account of the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto as I have heard, phrasing each principal theme with unerring musicality and demonstrating a seamless legato. The tone she produced from her Stradivarius was ravishing. Unfortunately, not all the violinists had the benefit of such an instrument. Artyom Shishkov, 23, from Belarus failed to advance to the finals because of a “catastrophically bad instrument”, said jury chairman Vladimir Spivakov, who urged the country’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, to provide the musician with a violin worthy of his talents.

Another flap came when the orchestra assigned to accompany the cello finals bowed out of playing Prokofiev’s challenging Symphony- Concerto on the grounds that it hadn’t played it in 10 years. Sergei Antonov, 23, thus had to play the Dvorák Cello Concerto. It did him no harm, for he took the gold medal. At the awards ceremony, he offered a polished performance of Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme that stressed its classical elements; his account of the Dvorák was reportedly fiery.

Unlike past events, there were no charges of jury favouritism or political pressures. Times have changed since the late Mstislav Rostropovich and other competition officials were told that Russians had to win because the competition coincided with a Lenin anniversary year (Rostropovich’s response: postpone the Tchaikovsky by a year so we can have a fair competition). This year’s event was by all accounts fair, and it yielded talents whom we’ll be hearing from again.

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