The second round of the string quartet competition included all but one of my favorite quartets from the first round: the EnAccord Quartet, whose delectable Schulhoff performance had charmed so much, somehow did not make the cut. But the Afiara Quartet from Canada was present again on this first day of eight remaining quartets vying for a semi-final slot. In front of the six professional string quartet judges (former members of the Ysaÿe, Cleveland, Tokyo/Borodin, Arditti, Orford, and Petersen Quartets) and their presiding amateur chairman, Sir Peter Jonas they started with the Mendelssohn’s a-minor quartet op.13. As much I liked the quartet in the first round, this performance found me nothing but frustrated.
There was nothing that suggested a notable fault on the quartet’s part and yet the music didn’t gel. It consistently sounded less than I know the Mendelssohn quartet can sound like. Would a better separation of the voices helped? Nicer sounding instruments? I was – and remain – baffled and disappointed. And disappointment is not easily cured with the drab 13th String Quartet of Shostakovich; to these ears the gloomy equivalent of the 8th Symphony. It’s a difficult work to really get into and it doesn’t grab the listener by the lapels to hold him or her for its to duration. This wasn’t the fault of the performers (indeed, the solo viola parts might have qualified David Samuel for the viola semi-final later that day), but more likely the work. The shrieking was well shrieked, the droning well droned, the batting well batted, and the plucking well plucked. Not enough of this for a semi-finals spot, I regret to say, but a marvelous impression. I can only hope that they’ll come down from Canada to visit Washington some time soon.
The Gémeaux Quartet started with Witold Lutosławski’s only “Quartet for Strings”. Anne Schoenholtz delivered absolute precision and purity – very necessary during the long violin solo prologue – before the filigrane voices of the work came together as a very finely woven silver mesh. Irregularly occurring violent ruptures added an intrusive texture like plowed furrows on snow covered fields. The work is chock-full of intriguing touches (including whale song) and as such a better listen than DSCH13. But could it not have been edited down to half its length and made a better impression, still? The Gémeaux’ Mendelssohn – also op.13 – was less confusing, more satisfying now. Was it greater cohesion, their instruments, they way they breathed during the opening phrase that told my ears something was going to be terribly right with this rendition? Even with a third movement that could have benefited from being more sprightly, op.13 did not now leave the strangely, ambiguously ambivalent feeling it still had an hour earlier.
Last for the day was the Amaryllis Quartet that I had not much enjoyed (and thus underestimated) during their first appearance. Now they played Brahms’ op.51/2 in just the way that heaves the quartet from merely listenable to enjoyable. The way they sailed through the opening with lightness and grace (which needs to be wrestled from Brahms) while concealing the effort this must have taken, was most impressive. Any band that can make Haydenesque slippers out of the sensible boots that are Brahms, is most welcome to these ears, indeed. It got better, still, with the “Officium breve in memoriam Andreae Szervánsky, Op. 28” – effectively György Kurtág’s third string quartet. After the Lutosławski, the fear of Kurtág emptied the auditorium by a third. What they missed was a very moving work of great conciseness in what were six short ‘cells’, rather than movements. The succinctness wasn’t the only evocation of Anton Webern. The third cell with its erraticisms particularly reminded of that only composer who fully understood the virtue of brevity. Strain and stress, dynamic extremes and whispering strings were the hallmark of the second cell, and even with a phone ringing incessantly and workers banging about on the roof again, the Amaryllis did a marvelous job getting through the Officium’s gentle, sew-sawing, and wailing moods (at one point like a metaphysical dance).
The second round of string quartets ended in the early afternoon so that the jury member Atar Arad would be able to listen to his commissioned work Tikvah (“Hope) played by the five viola semi-finalists. (The ARD Competition commissions a new work very year for each of the instrumental categories which are mandatory to play in the semi finals.) Hearing this particular piece in so many different interpretations in quick succession raised a host of questions. “What makes the value of a piece of music?”, for example. Wen Xiao Zheng, by now a favorite for the final, played it first and the piece sounded every bit as trite as its dedication to “ALL innocent victims of senseless violence, regardless of their ethnicity or beliefs”. Never mind that the latter qualification hardly needed to be spelled out (would anyone suggest that Mr. Arad might feel strongly against violence, except when it affects, say, Buddhists?), but why not throw in a plea for an end to all hunger and world-peace? (Actually, he does more or less call for that in his little preamble.)
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)
Call me cynical, but I find that sort of blue-eyed, mushy naïveté almost cynical itself. “Tikvah” is a modest, twelve minute long composition for solo viola that will be played five times at this competition and then never again. Not that noble wishes are per se worthy of mockery, but at this inflationary rate of high-minded, high-falutin’ dedications, I might as well dedicate my morning’s cereal consumption to the hope of ending white slavery. And tonight, I shall brush my teeth in memory of ALL victims of breast cancer.
Back to the music: Wen Xiao Zheng, who had just put down an immensely polished performance of the Franz Anton Hoffmeister Viola Concerto in D, played the notes of this double-stop étude right (it’s very reasonably notated), but he may not have thought much about the music. It sounded so hopelessly unnecessary that I secretly wished for Reger’s g-minor Suite, instead. The most moving moment was an altered scale. But then came Sergey Malov, another favorite, and incredibly he turned acoustic meaningless and empty clichés of middle-easternish sounds into music. The altered scale turned into a Berg reference, grace notes into allusions of place and time, ascending double stops into a Bach homage, and a little Klezmer broke through, too. If music is as good and valuable as it can be made to sound, then Malov either showed that there might be (limited) merit to “Tikvah” after all. Or he proved an artist of such caliber that he can truly make silk purses out of sows ears’.
Lili Maijala and Dimitri Murrath didn’t follow that route quite as far, but apparently Teng Li did. The concerto part, meanwhile, was very well taken by Zheng and Malov (who played the Stamitz instead of the Hoffmeister). Mr. Murrath chopped moments of terrific sound to small bits by too many kinks. Mlle. Maijala had no fewer mishaps and a flexible intonation, to boot, but managed to make the music sound as enjoyable as any performer did and offered a tone, not unlike Malov, that made the viola sound like a compromise between the violin and cello – not their lowest common denominator. Teng Li’s tone meanwhile wasn’t how I prefer a viola to sound, but her Hoffmeister immaculate. The star of these concertos was the Munich Chamber Orchestra (MKO), however. They deserve the highest laurels for playing Hoffmeister and Stamitz, at a competition no less, with the utmost engagement and dedication… better and more committed than many a regular orchestra during regular concerts.
With the results already in: all but Dimitri Murrath made it into the finale which will take place on September 10th.
Recommended recordings of the string quartets played so far in this round: