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History / East and West
East and West
Although the U.S. kept a low profile in the two Ysaÿe Competitions of 1937 and 1938, the country has been present from the very first edition of the Queen Elisabeth Competition. In view of what this prestigious competition meant to the Soviet authorities, a real rivalry developed from 1951 on. That was certainly the way audiences - far from indifferent to East-West relations - and the critics saw it, despite the occasional half-hearted denial.

H.M. Queen Elisabeth and laureates (1951)
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The tone was set in 1951. Even more than before the war, the attitude of the Soviet laureates, perceived as arrogant, and the generally partisan way this was portrayed in the Belgian press were not without influence on the course of events. Leonid Kogan flew through the competition and on his return to Moscow gave interviews in which he was anything but tender towards the Competition, the Queen, and Belgium and its middle classes. Tension rose as the menace of war grew, while the Korean War created a violent shock in Belgium; this led to a complete absence of Soviet participants in 1952. Later, however, and over a long period, the Soviets, with Oistrakh at their head, were to be among the most loyal supporters of the event, Kogan even serving on the 1971 and 1976 juries; Queen Elisabeth, moreover, was the guest of honour at the first Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958, which caused quite a stir in Belgium.

Philippe Hirschhorn, in 1967, with Stoïka Milanova, Gidon Kremer ans Roman Nodel (4th price violin 1967)
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The U.S.S.R.-U.S.A. contest at first seemed to be well balanced. The U.S. victors Senofski (1955) - whose victory over Sitkovetsky caused a sensation - and Frager (1960) were joined by Laredo (1959) who, although Bolivian, was trained by the U.S.-based Ivan Galamian. So Vladimir Ashkenazy’s win in 1956 was welcome to the Russians. From 1963 on, however, the Soviet steamroller really got going and it seemed that nothing could stop it. The sequence of Michlin, Mogilevsky (1964), Hirshhorn (1967), Novitskaya (1968), Afanassiev (1972), Faerman (1975), and Bezverkhny (1976) was interrupted only by the Israeli Miriam Fried (1971) - another sensational winner. The U.S. rout was particularly crushing in the violin competitions: in 1967 and 1971 the U.S.A. had no laureate in the final.

At first, the media showed an almost caricatural interest in the candidates from the East. Who were they? What did they do? What did they eat? How many hours a day did they work? This fascination, however, gradually faded. The Russians of the Brezhnev era no longer had the same mass appeal and no longer seemed to flourish. Flight to the West became the rule for the representatives of the East: in the wake of Ashkenazy, Berman, and Markov, it was the turn of Hirshhorn, Kremer, and Nodel, followed later by Novitskaya, Leonskaya, Afanassiev, Faerman, Egorov, and others who fled their native land under the horrified gaze of Oistrakh and Gilels. For some it turned out well, although not for all. The focus was no longer constantly on the international rivalry, but often more on the rescuing of artists in distress who felt almost asphyxiated behind the Iron Curtain. The U.S.S.R. was in disarray, and, mired in a political impasse, shut itself off from the outside world and announced a boycott of the Competition. There were no official Soviet candidates from 1978 to 1987.

This was a time of some uncertainty and disappointment for the Competition, which made great efforts to persuade the Soviet authorities to change their minds. The Russians were missed; but they came back. The year 1989 and Vadim Repin marked the grand return of the Soviet bear. However, though the youthful violinist was remarkable and appeared to be detached from political preoccupations, the bear was sick and events in Berlin soon afterwards seemed to bring the Russian-American conflict to a final end, all the more so as U.S. policy led to a shortage of fine U.S. artists, for whom Europe no longer seems to be a priority. One hopes to see this trend reversed in our own time.
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