The sense of accomplishment after a grueling cultural marathon can be most gratifying. I remember that after my first King Lear I felt even more pleased about my having made it all the way through without falling asleep than I did about the genius of Shakespeare. Having brought behind me the fourth and last day of the first round of the ARD International Music Competition’s viola contest without muttering obscenities under my breath at the very mention of a Max Reger Sonata for Solo Viola was perhaps an even greater accomplishment, and it took considerably longer, too.
A cocktail of masochism and loyalty to those endeavoring and sometimes even wonderful violists sent me back on day four, to listen to the last 13 candidates (of which I heard 12) try to get into the second round of the competition by playing more Reger, Vieuxtemps (Capriccio), and another work of their choice. First up was Barbara Buntrock (Germany) who surprised mightily by opting for the 8th Étude of Maurice Vieux instead of the seemingly de rigeur Vieuxtemps. That so few other violists did, was partly explained by the performance. Instead of providing a lyrical or melodic contrast to the inevitable Reger, Vieux let more double stops rain down on us – a work undoubtedly more impressive to a fellow instrumentalist than it is pleasing to the innocent ear. But then that is true of nearly all Études.
Ysaÿe’s Third Solo Suite (for violin, transcribed) was a daring choice, and it needed some time before it sounded remotely as good as it does on the instrument it was intended for. In the Reger Suite – e-minor, here – Mlle. Buntrock went for grand expression, but also came up with some untidiness: this Reger-guy really knew how to compose uncomfortably for the viola, especially with those double stops over all kinds of intervals. Little wonder the jury selected his works as the first round requirement since it more or less separates the wheat from the chaff for them: All who remain standing after Regering for nearly 10 minutes march on.
Yuri Bondarev (Russia) wasn’t so lucky – neither his g-minor Suite nor the Vieuxtemps Capriccio was particularly successful. The chosen Glazunov Elegy for Viola was a pretty enough work, but neither exact nor clean enough to impress anyone with his command of the instrument. Anna Brugger (Germany), meanwhile, endeared herself to the ears with the Grieg Violin Sonata’s first movement, but that’s another work not native to the viola - and noticeably so, in this interpretation. A nondescript, if more or less faultless, performance of the Reger was followed by a fast and sloppy Capriccio.
More interesting, if not necessarily better, was Juraj Migaš (Slovakia) who for once offered some successful pianissimo double stops in his smoky toned g-minor Suite. But the Vieuxtemps was belabored and grim, the opening flustered. The Hindemith Trauermusik marked his playing as determined, but whether determined enough remains to be seen. Another German, Julia Neher, chose that beast of a Hindemith sonata, op.24, no.4 (movements 1-3), and she tamed it in a dramatic presentation with a pleasantly confident tone. Her Vieuxtemps meanwhile had little to no impact, and the memory slip in the last movement of an inconsequential Reger g-minor Suite along with some out-of-sync double stops didn’t make the best case for her advancement.
Adeliya Chamrina (Russia) took a fleet approach to the Reger (e-minor), befitting the work and especially appreciated after having heard it half a dozen times in three days. Fine work in the fast movements, but unnecessarily many errant notes in the Adagio. Apparently she prefers the fiery and fast over the expressive, because instead of the Vieuxtemps Capriccio, she chose the Campagnoli Caprice no.17. The strategy might have backfired: because even though her performance of a bravura piece originally for violin was less objectionable than most others, it still wasn’t very heartening stuff. At least the Rondo ungarese of Carl Maria von Weber’s op.35 showed the lyrical side she doth possess.
Adrien LaMarca (France) played his Reger with unexpected, pleasing aggression (Vivace), though not entirely cleanly. The Enescu Konzertstück had terrific moments (perhaps enough for another appearance?), giving way to hopes for a terrific, French, sensitive, and wistful Vieuxtemps Capriccio before Lunch break; hopes that were not quite fulfilled, though what we still got was deft and distinct.
David Kim from the USA opened his performance with the pleasing Telemann Fantasy (no.9 in b-minor) upon which one wondered why more Telemann had not been chosen instead of the more forbidding pieces (like the various Hindemiths). Had young Mr. Kim been told that the race doesn’t always go to the swift, the sonata might have been even more successful, but it was above average music making in any case. After a morning of less than astounding performances, it was good to hear him make the Reger e-minor sonata sound downright sensitive and kind: the result of a very skilled way in rounding the corners.
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)
As for the Vieuxtemps: after hearing almost two dozen interpretations, I now have a ‘perfect amalgamate version’ in my head. And anyone who does not either conform or shows a compellingly different way with it, saddens my ears. Kim’s forceful take did disappoint in that regard, but only at the highest level. From the batches of day three and four, his performance should have been easily enough to advance to the next round.
Manuel Hofer (Austria) got the arch of the Vieuxtemps right, but not all the details – the impotent fury was there, the resignation not. Four pieces from Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet, somewhere between hard-pressed and virile, made me yearn for the original version, and his Reger sounded devoid of dynamic gradations and lacking contour. The Korean Eunice Min-kyung Sung presented a different Vieuxtemps for a change: The first movement of his sonata for viola and piano. Alas, a steady and clear pianissimo would have counted more than a particularly nice tone above mezzo forte which most players have the ability to muster. The Paganini Caprice no.20 was an unfortunate squeak-fest and not the virtuoso delight she might have wanted it to be; her Reger g-minor Suite precise and with merit, but more acrobatic than artistic.
The Norwegian Ida Bryhn, finally, was the highlight of a dour day. The in- and exhaling opening of the Penderecki Cadenza for Viola solo demonstrated excellent control and the Cadenza itself was an exciting, energetic piece (important, so late in the day). Its cumulative power and spiky relentlessness made this, perhaps surprisingly, a tonic of mood (if not sound) among the many other chosen works. Closing with whispers and whimpers, this was touching and merely marred by the amount of extraneous breathing noises of Mlle. Bryhn (themselves vaguely reminiscent of watching a ladies’ tennis tournament). Her Vieuxtemps was the most satisfying, most dramatic of the day, the double stops integrated in the musical flow, the small rises and falls accentuated just right, the tension ratcheted up effectively, the trills accurate, and the accelerando in the right places. And as if saying bye-bye to the Reger Suite in g-minor would not have been exciting enough, the qualities displayed in the Capriccio applied here, too. Elegant yet dramatic, accurate and with appropriate force, she didn’t hack the Suite into too many small bits. Only the hissing and heaving distracted. Antihistamines and a spot in the second round for Miss Bryhn, please.
The last candidate of the first round was Jérémy Pasquier from France. And for the duration of his Reger Suite in e-minor it seemed that the day had saved its best for last. Clean, round, sinuous, this was a way to make Reger listenable even after the last few days’ brutal overexposure. A sure-fire participant in the second round at this point, even if the following Vieuxtemps was already “un-special” (with a vibrato shaking like a lamb’s tail). But what did him in was the choice of the Paganini Caprice no.24. None of the Paganini works not composed for the viola had been very successful so far, and here the result was nearly a disaster. To struggle so direly (especially with the harmonics) in the work of his choice could hardly have been made up even with a fancy spiccato / left-hand pizzicato passage.
Now, with day five approaching, the joy of never having to hear the Reger Suite in g-minor again starts to mingle with the sweet anticipation of the String Quartet competition that starts tomorrow at 11AM. Quartets from Beethoven op.18 or Haydn op.74 await, as does the Lyric Suite of Berg. In short: real music, at last; and with the viola presented as God has intended it to be utilized – betwixt two violins and a cello.