Karl Leister, David Shifrin, Nicolas Baldeyrou, Yuri Bashmet, Kim Kashkashian, Klaus Thunemann, and the Tokyo-, Eder-, Auryn-, Petersen-, Mandelring-, Leipzig-, Artemis-, and Ébène string quartets: all these are former prize winners of the ARD International Music Competition in the four fields that offer prizes in 2008 (from September 1st until the 19th) as well: Clarinet, Bassoon, Viola, and String Quartet.
Among the most important competitions, the ARD Competition might be the least known compared to the Concour Reine Elisabeth (Queen Elisabeth Competition), the Paganini Competition, the Tchaikovsky Competition, and the Chopin Competition. That probably has to do with the breadth that the ARD Competition which has awarded prizes in 19 categories, not just for the more glamorous solo instruments violin or piano. Since 1952 the categories Violin, Viola, Cello, Double Bass, Trumpet, Trombone, Horn, Flute, Clarinet, Oboe, Bassoon, Piano, Harp, Percussion, Piano Duo, Piano Trio, String Quartet, Woodwind Quintet and Voice all take their turns at the competition. (2009 will featureVoice, Harp, Violin, and double Bass where past winners have included Jessye Norman, Thomas Quasthoff, Christian Tetzlaff, Measha Brueggergosman, Christa Ludwig, Erika Köth, and Francisco Araiza.)
This year I wanted to sit in on the performances, mostly to hear 16 excellent young string quartets, but also to discover unheard repertoire for instruments I'd not likely hear otherwise. I skipped Day 1, but this morning I trekked to Studio 1 of the Bavarian Broadcasting Service (BR) to listen to a batch of violists trying to get into the second round.
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)
Some time after 11am Meng Xu (China) introduced me to the Max Reger Suite for Solo Viola op.131d in g-minor. What a beautiful work - Bach's paws all over it, of course - and how fine it sounds, even if Ms. Meng produces some extraneous noises (nervousness?) and underplayed the double stops by accentuating the 'lead' voice. Her tone strong and full, but her presentation of the music perhaps to eager and up-front.
Henry Vieuxtemps' posthumously published Capriccio in c-minor is also surprisingly fine music - a lyrical touch that moves immediately. So after two works, I conclude that listening to unadulterated viola for a whole day promises to be not half the threat it looked like, at first. Even a buzz-saw Paganini Caprice (op.1, no.13) didn't deter me.
Jing Yang (China) came on, now, and another chance to hear the Reger g-minor Suite. Neither this nor the 24th Paganini Caprice were particularly impressive (too blasé, too immature?), when she suddenly played the Vieuxtemps Capriccio (hello, again!) in the most felt and delicate manner. Easily the best performance of that Capriccio which I was to hear five more times after that. For the Vieuxtempts alone I'd like to hear what else she might be able to do in the next round.
Seungwon Lee from Korea enabled me to really get to know the Reger g-minor Suite. But even with his beautiful tone in the second movement (full but not thick), and the Viola-as-sport third movement, it seemed like the piece was getting five minutes longer for every time I heard it. Not as long as the Hindemith op.25, no.1, though: not a piece for cheer, even if it was better played than, yes, the Vieuxtemps Capriccio where Lee tried too hard, hadn't the long line in mind, was stuck in the moment, and closed with two completely uninspired pizzicato chords.
By the time Vladimir Babeshko started the g-minor Suite, I had developed a small-scale hatred for Reger. Babeshko's performance, very self-conscious, though not audibly to the music's detriment, had its moments, but overt breathing undermined it. His Vieuxtemps Capriccio (it should be noted that the Capriccio was by no means mandatory, but one of five possible choices) was so stolid, it barely registered with me. The Enescu Concert Piece for viola and piano was a relief on the ears (fatigue was setting in, already), and well prepared.
Before Lunch break, Ryo Oshima (Japan) presented the most mature performance of the - you guessed it - Reger g-minor Suite up to that point. That I was able to listen with interest again speaks to his lean and sinuous tone and playing of admirable purpose. His uncompromising, unerring rendition simply demanded a certain degree of attention. Hindemith op.11, no.5 "In shape and meter of a Passacaglia" was interminable, even if occasionally sparkling with the wit that betrays the violist-composer behind it. His Bartolommeo Campagnoli Caprice no.17 was impressive for the technical facility alone, and much appreciated alone for not being the Capriccio. Certainly a violist I might like to hear in the second round again.
The same can be said for Wen Xiao Zheng (China). His Vieuxtemps was silver-threaded, see-through, very fine, detailed and fragile - though slowly gaining in momentum to be an appropriate curtain raiser. There was more skill on display than with Jing Yang's performance, if not as much lyrical beauty. His Reger Suite - lo and behold the e-minor! - was a model of controlled and confident playing... getting even something resembling joy and wit out of this Reger piece. Rebecca Clarke's 1919 Viola Sonata was one of those reasons I had come in the first place: such pretty 20th century music so well played and so many different textures for the soloist to show off! Rumors of Wen Xiao Zheng being a favorite for a prize in the viola competition were impressively affirmed.
Sergey Malov (Russia) then achieved the feat of the day: He made the Reger g-minor Suite not just listenable, but enjoyable again! Tight, energetic, coherent: he put more Bach in it, and it worked terrifically well. I won't and don't want to hear all 29 participants who have chosen the g-minor among the three Reger Suites and the Adolf Busch Suite op.16a that were offered (18 performers chose the e-minor, 9 the D-major, none the Busch), but it is difficult to imagine it getting much better. A little too romantically driven the Vieuxtemps Capriccio, perhaps, but a remarkable Britten excerpt from "Reflections on a song by Dowland" where his tone became a completely different one from the preceding pieces: Eerie, hollow, and shifting colors.
Soo-Min Lee (Korea) was a small step down from that: husky her Reger D-major Suite, a bit pale in the second movement and without a stable arch. The Vieuxtempts was played with panache, on the lyrical side but never flagging intensity. Not great, but good. Unfortunately the beautiful Schumann Fantasiestück op.73 wasn't terribly interesting.
Tomorrow the Violas continue, on Thursday the Clarinets start, and the String Quartet competition gets under way on the 5th. Depending on how I feel about Reger in the morning, I'll continue with the violas or wait for the clarinets, in either case looking forward to some Beethoven op.18 on Friday.