A hint of glamor graced the final prize winners’ Concert of the 57th International ARD Music Competition in Munich, broadcast live on radio and recorded for television. The Herkulessaal was full with music lovers and industry insiders: agents, record company executives, orchestra managers, conductors, proud teachers, envious colleagues, and the interested officialdom of the German Public Broadcasting Institution (ARD) who finances the event together with its subsidiary institution, the Bavarian Broadcasting Service (BR).
The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, now with its first chairs back on duty, was conducted by the 28-year old GMD of Heidelberg, Cornelius Meister. The improvement over the BRSO finals performance was notable from the first movement of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto in A-major, K622 – played by Sebastian Manz, only the second first-prize winner in the history contest. He played the work on a basset clarinet (for which it was written) – and beautifully shaped the slow movement which essentially became an ersatz-requiem for Maurizio Kagel whose passing had been mourned before the concert with a minute of silence. Although fitting for the moment, an altogether more spirited performance and more flexible orchestral coat would usually be my preference.
Viola Competition, Round 1 (2) (September 2)
Viola Competition, Round 1 (3) (September 3)
Viola Competition, Round 1 (4) (September 4)
String Quartet Competition, Round 1 (1) (September 5)
String QuartetCompetition, Round 1 (2) (September 6)
String QuartetCompetition, Round 1 (3) (September 7)
String QuartetCompetition, Round 2 (1) and Viola, Semi-Finals (September 8)
String QuartetCompetition, Round 2 (2) (September 9)
Viola, Final (September 10)
String Quartet, Semi-Finals (September 11)
Clarinet, Final (September 12)
Days 13 & 14:
String Quartet & Bassoon Finals (September 13 & 14)
Prize Winner Concert No.1 (September 17)
Prize Winner Concert No.2 (September 18)
It speaks to the André Jolivet Concerto for Bassoon, String Orchestra, Harp and Piano that it is much harder to play than to appreciate as a listener. Marc Trénel, the French first first-prize winner in the history of the ARD’s bassoon competition, brought the funk and beauty out of this 1954 (!) work in a way that made Jolivet more pleasurable even than the Mozart. And not just to these ears but those of fellow neophytes as well, whose innocent ears instinctively respond to inventiveness, variety of mood, and spirited presentation. Together with Kalevi Aho’s concerto for contrabassoon (written for the Washington NSO’s Lewis Lipnick), this is one of the very few concertos for this instrument you’d actually want to hear every so often on its own merits, not just as an affirmative action vehicle for deprived bassoonists.
The Apollon Musagéte had the opportunity to silence those voices that doubted their being deserving of a first prize after an admittedly troubled, spottily genial Beethoven performance in the final round – and prove themselves worthy of the famous ARD top prize winning predecessors like the Tokyo-, Peterson-, Leipzig-, Mandelring-, Artemis-, and Ébène quartets. The Rodion Shchedrin commission, “Lyrical Scenes” which they played as its special prize winning interpreter, had been nearly impressive with them in the semi-finals. Now, in front of the composer, it sounded more like music, still – capable of entertaining even the audience exposed to it for the first time.
But to give a more substantial impression, the Polish quartet also encored their Bartók performance from the final. In their hands, Bartók “Three” plays more to its haunting, even numinous character rather than subverting that impression by playing up its animated side. It was good stuff – better even than when it had mattered more – but it still sounds likely that the four players will yet find a more personal, distinct, persuasive way with this work.
I was very pleased that the entire 2008 ARD Music Competition concluded with – and cumulated in – a performances of the terrific and terrifying, must-hear Schnittke Viola Concerto. A befitting conclusion in particular because no work might be more closely associated with the competition. It was written for- and dedicated to- an ARD prize winner (Yuri Bashmet), and all of its important recordings* are made by ARD prize winners: Bashmet (ARD winner in 1976, recorded first in the USSR, later for RCA), Kim Kashkashian (’80, ECM), Nabuko Imai (’67, BIS), and just this week from the 2004 first-prize winner Antoine Tamestit (Ambroisie). (Not the least this list indicates the ARD competition’s king-maker qualities for violists – so far the contest’s strongest category along with voice and string quartets.)
Maybe WenXiao Zhen from China will one day add his name to this very distinguished list – because his intentionally raw performance during this final concert with the BRSO was worthy stuff after this concerto had already won him the audience-prize in the finale. In this concerto, which explores pain and grief, anger and desolation, WenXiao Zhen dared to go for deliberately ugly sounds and nailed the tension and despair of the work. The invariable grime he came up with added more than it detracted. An astounding performance for any player, much less someone who stood on stage with an orchestra only for the third time in his life.
All pictures © Sigi Müller, except WenXiao Zheng's portrait which is © Daniela Falke