While the violas celebrate (or cry), now that they’ve got their contest all done with, won their merits, or got their thanks-for-trying certificates, the string quartets come into even greater focus, stealing the limelight off the poor bassoons. The string quartet semi-finals were a two-concert, six-hour music marathon between 11AM until about 8PM. Mozart for everyone, as well as Hugo Wolf’s Italian Serenade and the ARD Competition commissioned piece by Rodion Shchedrin: Lyric Scenes for String Quartet.
There’s a potential bright side to hearing a work like Shchedrin’s six times in short succession: one of the interpreters may, and if only accidentally, hit upon worthy music in it. Not unlike Sergey Malov did with Atar Arad’s Tikvah (the Britten-Lachrymae aspect of which I had completely missed). When just the notes are played, the admirably short Shchedrin piece is a happier affair than Tikvah. Unfortunately, six different attempts at the music seemed to suggest that more than the notes simply wasn’t there. It remained a vaguely pensive, casual, and perfectly harmless work. Which, admittedly, is more than what can be said about most such commissioned pieces.
The Swiss-German Amaryllis Quartett was the first to go at it, and they extracted no sense from it, nor – like all but two quartets – did they observe the dynamic markings very carefully. Quadruple- and triple-pianissimos were less than hushed, pianissimo passages – plucked and bowed alike – were no softer than mezzopiano or mezzoforte. The work, easy to read, has its challenges for the players, but even with the artificial contrasts of fff and ppp it’s a bit on the monotonous side. But there was Mozart, too – the E-flat Quartet K428. A breathy opening, the first violin not always easy on the ears, and the same calm approach for the two first movements. Their transparency and separation of voices was too much and bordered on thinness – with a pianist I’d speak of a “Dresden China” approach to the music. An impression that didn’t have to be much revised after the more tempestuous (and mistake prone) last movement. A neat and nippy Italian Serenade brought their 2008 ARD competition experience to a close.
If the Amaryllis’ Wolf was “neat”, Heaves & Pomerray (b.k.a. Heath Quartet) made it a barnstorming, hootin’ piece of fun-house music that sounded more like born out of the Le Jazz period in the 1920s, not written in 1887 alongside Strauss’ dour Violin Sonata, Rheinberger’s marvelous but utterly conventional op.149 Suite for organ, violin, and cello, or Dvořák’s Second Piano Quintet. The Wild West was swinging a-heavily in this, and it was good raucous fun: on its own merits deserving of a finale berth as far as I’m concerned, although that was sadly and curiously not to be.
Admittedly, their Mozart K464 (A-major) wasn't so deserving: Neither of extraordinary delicacy nor with any other interpretative angle that defined the performance, this was less than inspired. At least the third movement wasn’t too garrulous – and those bouncing, “drumming” accompanying lines (largely with the cello, but also traded to the viola, then the second violin, before returning to the cello) simply are one of the great moments in Mozart. Out of the Shchedrin, the Brits could make little more sense than the Amaryllis, though they played it with greater precision..
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)
The Afiara Quartet squeaked into finale just so, but the first price for most fashionable appearance they’d have locked up already, if there was such a category. Their Wolf was now more modern, pre-Bergian almost, and Shchedrin still didn’t reveal a secret masterpiece. They offered a more compact, straight-faced sound here as well as in the Mozart, which paid dividends in K428. The revealing notes I scribbled down during their performance: “1st movement: OK. 2nd movement: faultless, unexciting. 3rd movement: OK. Finale: not a day for Mozart, today.”
Except for the Heath’s Wolf, none of the first batch's performances were top flight, and some of it less than first class, too. Happily things improved considerably when the afternoon session of string quartets got under way at about 5PM. The Gémeaux Quartett opened with Mozart’s “Hoffmeister” Quartet K499 (now that’s Hoffmeister, I can believe in). Also very stylish, these four German/Swiss players made their Mozart an athletic, even Olympian sport. The second violin (Sylvia Zucker) could have made more out of the music she was dealt in the opening movement, rather than content herself with little more than harmonic background chirping. Playing Mozart like late Beethoven and succeeding in showing the music from its inherently enjoyable side is maybe too difficult a task for most quartets.
Better a bold intonation issue, than a timid intonation issue, I say… and that might have been the Gémeaux’ motto, too, in the (bold indeed) second movement. Dancing in front of her colleagues like the pied piper in ballerina slippers, the chipper-playing first violin Anne Schoenholtz made the others follow her happily. The tight-enough ensemble and the discipline worked reasonably well in this firm, lean, occasionally muscular, occasionally mechanical performance. A steely Mozart never to love, but one to make an impression with.
Shchedrin was better from the rest only in that the voices were more finely attuned to each other, that first violin dared to make a might sound when called for, and because they nailed the very last phrase: one half bar of 32nd notes with a decaying sound from mp to ppp played sul ponticello. Small victories. The Italian Serenade, a work that fortunately refused to get old upon hearing so many times, sounded fresh – in both meanings of the word: I loved the inflections and slides that gave this Wolf something between a Viennese wine-induced slur and a strong air of a North-Texan, chicle chewing saloon girl eying her potential ‘visitors’. (If La Fanciulla del West sounded half as authentically western, it might actually be a fine opera.) The Gémeaux didn’t go down that road all the way (unlike the Heath), though. They still observed great detail, flirting with precision for its own sake and thereby reigning some of the ‘total-flair’ aspect back in. Not necessarily a bad decision, but not a necessary one, either.
Apollon Musagete had their great and slightly lesser moments in this contest already. Now, amid the disappointing level of Mozart playing in this semi-finale, their “Dissonance” Quartet K465 (C-major) was a relative triumph. K465 is an astounding work not only for the premonitions-of-Webern opening, but its genial nature throughout. And lo-and-behold, the four Poles were the first to present Mozart that sounded genial, too. Small mistakes didn’t matter – they were negligible in light of the music of which they were part. After four moonlit Mozartean quartet-scapes, finally some sunshine! I suspect the success was due to a quartet actually sitting down for some music-making, instead of string-quartet-competition-playing. Velvet gloves in the second movement and nearly as amiable final movements only underscored how dissatisfying all the previous Mozart – including the better-than-the-rest’s Gémeaux’ – had been.
They didn’t stop here, either: Shchedrin finally had four players who at least tried to dutifully observe the dynamic markings, and first violinist Pawel Zalejski played those 32nd note runs as if they had been etched into metal plates. Not that that revealed sudden greatness, but at least it made the act of reading along more satisfying. Then Hugo Wolf’s Serenade became a new piece of music, again. Instead of the anachronistic Saloon & Blues-interpretation, they gave us the Vienna Coffee-house version. Vienna is, after all, an eastern European city – and Apollon Musagetes made that plenty clear. The earnestness with which second violinist Bartosz Zachlod had fun was downright adorable. The performance made old gentlemen in the audience stomp their feet and howl (! - presumably because it was Hugo Wolf) with excitement. Just like the Gémeaux, unequivocal candidates for the finale in which they will appear on September 13th.
Last for the day was again the Verus String Quartet who opted for sandwiching their Mozart between Wolf and Shchedrin. Despite my admiration for their playing so far, I imagined the possibility of these four young Japanese musicians driving Wolf's Serenade against the wall in a buttoned-up reading. Turns out that they played it more or less as I feared, but that the result didn’t sound like anything I might have been afraid of. Sure it was a rather unsmiling, un-infectious Serenade, and it was played straight faced, as absolute music. But it was beautiful absolute music now, with a nocturnal air about it.
Shchedrin’s Lyric Scenes (all scenes, no story), had more nice touches than all but the Polish performances, too. Not as accurate as the latter, but again played as absolute music which might have been as good a plan as any, rather than searching for extra-musical meaning not present. Their excellent sound raised the question here, as well as in any of their other performances: What instruments does this youngest of the participating quartets play on?
Without wanting to take away from their due credit for playing so well, their instruments must be well above average for such a consistent, uncommonly beautiful sound. A sound they put to very fine use in their Mozart K387 “Spring”. This was polished without that driven zeal or the all-too-skimpy sound already heard, displaying an exactness without that heightened, even aggressive, pressure with which Mozart had been treated so far. There may not have been anything overtly “Mozartesque” about the Verus' reading (which also means an absence of clichés), nor did they chose the casual style of the Apollon Musagetes, but there was plenty of their civilized, mature sound and groomed playing that simply has its own, very rewarding merits. Although this isn’t at all my aesthetic credo, hearing this I had to admit: Beauty is – sometimes – an end in itself. How good to be hearing them in Beethoven and Bartók again, so soon.
Recommended recordings of the string quartets played in the semi final: