Despite his long career as a violinist and teacher, Boris Goldstein (1922–87) is not one of the most recognisable names in the pantheon of string players. The career of the Odessa-born musician was mostly confined to the Soviet Union – his precocious beginnings stymied by the post-war regime that turned against artists, intellectuals and especially Jews.

It was with the aim of promoting awareness of Goldstein’s place in violin history that his former student Zakhar Bron founded the International Boris Goldstein Violin Competition Bern, which took place from 22–30 January this year. Bron also conceived the event as a way of honouring the man whom, after Igor Oistrakh, he still considers to be his most important mentor.

Special protection from Stalin

As a child prodigy, Goldstein received special protection from Stalin – not to mention praise from legendary figures such as Rachmaninoff and Kreisler – but he was not selected by authorities to perform in the West, unlike his more fortunate compatriots David Oistrakh and Mstislav Rostropovich.

He nevertheless became famous in Russia, known for combining technical precision with a beautiful tone, and for the effectiveness of his fingerings. One source of income was as a tester of instruments in state collections – reportedly he knew exactly how to get the best possible sound out of inferior work.

As a performer, however, he was forced on to secondary circuits, which paradoxically led to his developing an unusually wide repertoire, including music by Honegger and Bloch. He championed the works of both of these Swiss composers (at that time, knowledge of Bloch’s Jewish roots had not crossed the Iron Curtain).

Suffering increasingly hostile treatment

He also taught at the Gnessin Institute in Moscow, where Zakhar Bron numbered among his students. After suffering increasingly hostile treatment, in 1974 he emigrated to Germany with his family, when he was well past his prime. It was with his mentor’s legacy in mind that Bron selected the required works for the competition. Bloch’s Sonata no.1 was included for the second round, where students also choose two pieces arranged by Jascha Heifetz (who had once called Goldstein ‘the USSR’s most brilliant violin talent’).  The jury featured a Goldstein student from the Germany years, Michael Guttman, who was made aware of the event by Vadim Repin – himself a protégé of Bron’s, and whom Goldstein considered to be a kind of musical great-grandchild. Other jurors included Igor Ozim, Viktor Pikayzen and Ida Haendel, who voted by Skype from the US.

Top Cantabile and dramatic integrity from Mone Hattori

Guttman drew parallels between his erstwhile tutor’s teaching methods and those of Goldstein. ‘Much of Zakhar Bron’s demanding attitude towards his students comes from Boris Goldstein,’ he told me. ‘As friendly as he [Goldstein] was, right before and after each lesson he was a different man. He would demand more and more precision, and more and more sound. And, like Goldstein, Bron has a solution to any technical problem.’ The high number of Bron students who emerged as finalists caused some controversy on various online forums (see last issue). It was certainly noticeable that of the initial 31 participants, selected from 39 submissions, only a third were students of Bron.

By the final round, only one – Benjamin Baker, who would emerge with sixth prize – had not studied with him. But although this fact might have seemed dubious from afar, once I had heard the finalists’ performances of Mozart concertos, with the Zakhar Bron Chamber Orchestra accompanying, I could only concur with most of the jury’s decisions. (Each finalist also performed a Romantic concerto with piano accompaniment.) All of Bron’s students, from the Grand Prix winner Mone Hattori to the fifth-placed Furong Li, boasted a robust low range, singing high notes and a strong but flexible bowing arm. This was perhaps most conspicuous in the small frame of Hattori, who collected CHF15,000 (£9,800) after performing Mozart’s Concerto no.3 in the final round.

Although I found her to be generally lacking in dynamic nuance and personality, her precocity emerged through her restrained, honeyed tone in the Adagio.

Gallery Aleksey Semenenko; Stefan Tarara; Shiori Terauchi; Arsenis Selalmazidis; Furong Li

Even stronger was Waxman’s Carmen Fantasy, played at the prizewinners’ concert the next day, which brought forth the required dose of cantabile and dramatic integrity despite the occasional harsh tone. Both Aleksey Semenenko and Stefan Tarara, who tied for the first prize, demonstrated an unparalleled level of refined musicianship and stage presence.

Semenenko in particular, performing Mozart’s Concerto no.5, imbued every moment with meaning, creating an almost improvisatory feel in the opening Allegro, a melting, crying tone in the inner Adagio and, through expert use of rubato, a nearly operatic dialogue in the final Menuetto.

In the winners’ concert he turned Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Figaro Variations on a Theme by Rossini into a mini-drama of its own, allowing the lines to speak with idiomatic Italian accents. Although I was less charmed by Tarara’s performance, there was no denying the professionalism with which he delivered Mozart’s Concerto no.4, with its incisive attacks and use of colour across the violin, always with a specific dramatic purpose in mind.

He blended masterfully with the orchestra

In the inner Andante he blended masterfully with the orchestra, only to retake command suddenly. He also rendered the chirping melody of the final Allegro with the most authenticity of any version that afternoon.

If his performance of Paganini’s Introduction and Variations on ‘Nel cor più non mi sento’ the following day was somewhat flashy, Tarara left the audience in no doubt of his technical prowess, his sharp grasp of musical form, and his fearless thespianism. ‘When a real talent arrives, that is always a unique thing,’ said Bron, also stating his hope that the competition would provide a platform for young talented artists who deserved to be associated with his tutor’s name.

This first iteration of the contest appeared to have done just that, with many of the finalists demonstrating an ability to interpret each of the required pieces with freedom and confidence, while also respecting a given work’s stylistic boundaries. It will be interesting to see how many names on this edition’s roster will go on to enjoy the international fame that eluded Goldstein for so much of his life.