There is nothing duty-like about attending a competition for String Quartets. In fact, after the violish monotony of “All Reger, all the time”, it’s rather like taking a vacation. Apparently it's not just me who feels this way: Whereas only hardy enthusiasts, fellow violists, and their friends followed the viola competition in the sequestered Studio 1 of the Bavarian Broadcasting Service (BR), the auditorium of the Munich Conservatory was packed with listeners eager to be treated to the first of three free concerts by 11 promising young string quartets from around the world.
The opening salvo was fired by the Quartet Feruz from Uzbekistan. Dinara Sabitova and Feruza Normatova (violins), Aybek Ashirmatov (viola) and Oybek Imamov (cello) began with Haydn’s op.77, no.1, an experience that was akin to bathing in good music. But good music isn’t enough at a competition, it also needs to be played well. The four Uzbeks got credit for explosiveness and a catchy beat, which almost made up for the wayward intonation in the first two movements. Every movement of this rather densely played quartet emphasized that rhythm is their strong suit, not accuracy or transparency.
Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet, with the Concertino for String Quartet tacked on as a last movement, only furthered that impression. Convenient, because the third movement (“Canticle”) apart, the work lends itself to that approach as much as the movement titles (“Dance” and “Eccentric”) suggest. A pity that the building's roof had to be fixed just then – because the repairman, apparently banging on metal pipes, only nearly got the syncopated rhythm right. A capable performance with exciting moments – but probably not competitive for its lack of intonation and clarity. Extra points for not even blinking during the unexpected percussion solo from above, though!
Next up was the two-year old Afiara String Quartet from Canada with a performance of the Beethoven op.18/1 [IMSPL score] every bit as professional sounding as their sleek website looks. Valerie Li, Yuri Cho (violins), David Samuel (viola), and Adrian Fung (cello) played the Beethoven swift and lean, finely spun to the point of thinness – suggesting something between extraordinary sophistication or timidity. Their understatement and clarity was in stark contrast to the previous quartet, and their ultra-sensitive touch (especially Fung and Mlle. Li with her sustained pianissimos) a delight. High speeds proved no problem in the Scherzo and while the fleet Allegro wasn’t particularly probing, it was satisfyingly ‘classical’.
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)
But that was but the appetizer: Berg’s Lyric Suite [IMSPL link] followed, and this was just incredibly well done. Three pieces into the contest, and already time for gushing: More engaged than the Beethoven and more forceful, though still benefiting from the already displayed lean qualities, this had transparency and tenacity right next to each other. From the wispy opening of the third movement (like an electrical storm) to the fourth movement (coming in parts closest to what the general publics’ understanding of “lyric” is), the performance only got more and more involved. Hushed voices, shivers, and lots of spunk: The four performers dug deep and came up with the riches.
After such splendor, it would have been greedy to ask for more of the kind, but then that’s more or less what the Gémeaux Quartett (averaging 28 years and also with a stylish website) did. In Haydn’s all-too-rarely played op.50/2 [IMSPL score] they offered a homogeneous and very civilized sound from the first violin (Anne Schoenholtz) down to the cello (Uli Witteler). Very befitting a piece of music that is equally elegant. There were so many instances in which the ears delighted: wonderful key shifts in the Adagio: Cantabile, thankful passages for the first violin, the humorous Trio with its stop & go joviality… reminding even in the most minute parts why Haydn is such a great composer. That they loosened up a little over the course of the quartet enabled the Finale to be truly “Vivace assai”.
Their chosen 20th century piece (from a list of 16) was Schoenberg’s Third, op.30, by all means a tough nut to crack for players and listeners alike. The psychology of ‘advanced music lovers’ is such that they will actually find a work like Schoenberg No.3 enjoyable, maybe even beautiful. It is, of course, no more beautiful than a bulldog or boxer – which is to say: ugly, by any sane, objective standard. But just ask any owner of such a dog and they will give you a lecture on how very beautiful their extraordinarily misunderstood little pooches are. Sort of the same with Schoenberg - despite the fact that it has considerably less obvious beauty than the (also difficult, though much more rewarding) Lyric Suite.
Being afflicted by the very same warping of aesthetic values, I am finding the Schoenberg String Quartets (and not just the bona fide romantic, dainty unnumbered ones!) more and more pleasurable, in a refreshing, tart way. The very committed and very detailed performance of the Gémeaux Quartett contributed significantly to that pleasure. As is the case with any expert rendition, the perfectly dissonant music suddenly becomes alive with rhythm and can even (very occasionally) wax poetically and indulge in accidental harmony. One ceases to ask the music to make sense in any conventional way and discovers its own, autarkic, sense. Beautiful, though, the quartets are not. And No.3 least of them. If the chaotic streak of the fourth movement made it a bit more difficult to be quite as on top of the music and the piece became tough going, after all, it wasn’t for lack of craftsmanship on part of the performers. The ears simply ran out of benevolence at some point.
Concluding the first day of string quartets, the all-female Belgian/Dutch EnAccord String Quartet (website with lots of pictures) first played Haydn’s op.33/1. A very, very delicate second violin (Helena Druwe) stood out, the trading of phrases was delectable, and only the ripped forte chords were a little off. Up until the Presto, the sound was of the ‘well behaved’ kind. But suddenly the entire quartet sounded different: Full bodied and with a rakish touch, taking some risks, laying it on thick. What a lovely flexibility from one bar to another instead of having ‘one sound’ per player that only changes along the lines of the dynamic markings. Again, this was good stuff.
But the best was yet to come, and it came in the form of Erwin Schulhoff’s String Quartet No.1. That the EnAccord was only one of two quartets to have chosen this work from the given options probably points to the fact that this 106 year young band (total, obviously, not average) were among the few who bothered to look at the score, and beyond the first page, too. It begins with an unisono assault on the listener, the first few pages inauspiciously black with notes. But things turn immediately to the charming, and then to unbridled fun. The music is very viola friendly (Rosalinde Kluck), there is lots of sul ponticello whispering, there are slides, tickles and spider-feet, pizzicato picking, au talon bowing, and col legno knocking… in short: it’s a whole bag of fun; frankly, it kicks ass. The only thing I wondered after the dreamy Andante molto sostenuto finale (where Ilka van der Plas demonstrated how to play perfect flageolet notes) was why I had not known this marvelous Schulhoff quartet already. It was nothing short of a revelation.
Three highlights of the kind I’d be lucky to hear played so well in any professional chamber series might make greedy. So I went back to Studio 1 where I would arrive in time to hear the last two violists of the first day in the second round of their competition. Just so that I wouldn’t forget the privilege of the quartet session, but also because those two last candidates included the stand-out performers from the second day of round one: Wen Xiao Zheng from China and the Russian Sergey Malov.
Brahms’ op.120/1 sonata in f-minor is not necessarily among the most pleasurable of his chamber works – especially in its viola arrangement. But after three viola-solo days I met it with some degree of gratitude. Since at least one movement of this work was required in the second round, everyone among the 18 participants left played it. (My gratitude would surely have declined considerably had I heard all nine on this day.) Wen Xiao’s reading of the first movement was good, but not special.
Sergey Malov, instead, played the whole work – and he knew why: Rarely have I heard this sonata tackled with such an intuitively right mix of attention to detail and comprehensive outline. Pleasurable Brahms, this, with all the necessary intensity and degree of schmaltz that makes the potentially dry music go down the ears smoothly. Malov’s other chosen works were the short Ligeti “Chaconne chromatique” and the Hindemith Sonata for Viola and Piano in F-major op.11/4. In the latter case you can observe the rare occasion of prettiness courtesy of Hindemith - but as so much of his music, this sonata, too, outstays its welcome. Especially when consumed after a day crammed full with so much other music.
Wen Xiao Zheng’s second piece was the Stravinsky Elegie, a work with many traps, not the least the soft double-stop studded beginning and the interval-jumping that follows. All needs to be played tenderly yet with great certainty and of course pin-point precision. As a piece of “music to listen to” it won’t likely become any more popular than it already isn’t. But for presenting one’s skill in handling the viola’s soft and light sides, it is very well suited. Consequently WXZ’s performance was not pleasurable due to some highlights, it was immensely impressive for mistakes not made.
But only in the Beethoven-laced Shostakovich Sonata for Viola and Piano op.147 did Wen Xiao Zheng deliver on the promise of his Tuesday performance: Calm beauty and an immensely tasteful vibrato, slow increases of intensity and immediate returns to gentleness, total control and total evenness of tone were all indicative of his merit not just as a violist, but as a musician. He is a player of character in possession of some of those intangible qualities that should point to a bright future, even if he were not to win a prize at this competition. Remember the name if you dig the viola.
Results from Day 3 and 4:Alexander Akimov (Russia), Benedikt Schneider (Germany), Julie Risbet (France), Dimitri Murrath (Belgium), Li Teng (China), and Lotem Beider (Israel) made it into this second round from day 3’s batch; Barbara Buntock (Germany), David Kim (USA), and Ida Bryhn (Norway) from day 4.
Recommended recordings of the string quartets played so far: