Day-off reading: Pianist Peter Donohoe’s fascinating Cold War competition diaries


The recital hall at the Moscow Conservatory.

British pianist Peter Donohoe has published his diary entries from the 1982 International Tchaikovsky Competition on his website. The then-29-year-old shared the silver medal (there was no gold that year) with Vladimir Ovchinnikov, helping launch his international career.

The diaries provide fascinating glimpses into two strange worlds — competitions and the other side of the former Iron Curtain.

It’s hard for anyone who hasn’t experienced it to imagine the paranoid greyness of the former Soviet Union, where the immigration agent extracts a small bribe (a ballpoint pen) to make Donohoe’s admission go more smoothly, where people routinely turn up the radio or stereo to hide their conversations from eavesdropping secret police and where, if you go to the washroom without a section the day’s newspaper, you are up the proverbial stinking creek.

Peter Donohoe (Christopher Morley photo).

Because I had visited the Soviet Union in 1987, a couple of years before it started to unravel, Donohoe’s observations brought back vivid memories — especially of the deep engagement of audiences with classical music, opera and ballet.

Donohoe describes how the competition trials at the Moscow Conservatory always drew a full house, and how the audience knew the music so well, it would gasp or tut-tut wrong notes or deviations from standard practice.

Listeners would also reward a favourite performer with unalloyed adulation.

Not many Westerners travelled to the Soviet Union to perform, and even fewer Sovet artists were able to leave their country, so not many people in the West were aware of the intoxicating energy given off by an audience that is hanging on a performer’s every note.

How could Donohoe — and Brigitte Engerer and Glenn Gould and anyone else who dared cross the dividing line into the Evil Empire — not bask in this kind of instant, visceral response to their art?

Donohoe candidly chronicles the silliness of competitions, the challenges of trying to figure out what a jury wants, and various sorts of shenanigans, including accidentally walking in on a juror coaching one of the competitors.

On the non-musical side, the pianist recounts a episode straight out of a John LeCarré novel, that begins when he slips away from his minder for a solo stroll on Red Square.

I won’t spoil the fun, so that you can check out the diary here.

Here is Donohoe with a snippet of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 at the competition finals, 20 years ago, followed by a later recording of Michael Tipett’s Piano Sonata No. 2, also the subject of an anecdote:

John Terauds

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