Day Four of the ARD Music Competition started with the singers. Baritone Sung-Hwa Hong (Korea) offered terrible Schubert (“Der Neugierige” from Die schöne Müllerin), exaggerated in that art song fashion that turns fine art into a caricature of itself. Too much expressiveness, absurd dynamic extremes, gestures rooted in parroted artifice: utterly disingenuous, even if Brahms’ “Mainacht” better suited the low center of his baritone voice that sounds fairly well at high volume. Mendelssohn’s “Es ist genug” (Elias) was a mess, too.
Emilio Jimenez Pons (Mexico) has a mature voice, but did it mature at a high enough level? Barber’s Nocturne sounded good, but so seasoned as to suggest little potential to further improve it. Schubert’s Musensohn was a tad rushed and so accented and eager as to eradicate every last bit of melancholy from it permanently. The tonal haze and unique pronunciation didn’t help here, but they didn’t hinder Pons—what a name to live up to!—to make the most of Mozart’s “Va, dal furor portata” which was chosen from his refreshingly broad range of offered repertoire. He might not make the second round here [Ed. he did], but surely he’ll find his place in Placido Domingo’s placement program for Latin American singers.
Mezzo Theresa Kronthaler (Germany) offered great nothingness in Schubert, Brahms, and Britten. Nothing wrong, nothing special, nothing particularly bad nor outstanding… and no emotional response on my part, not even to the dress of fluorescent orange with black patent leather high-heels that clashed so oddly with her timid posture.
Minsub Hong from Korea, a stocky and small tenor, worked his way up the stairs of the Music Academy with that air of importance that made me fear the worst—something along the lines of what his Korean colleague had delivered an hour earlier. Nothing of the sort! He was surprisingly convincing in Schubert’s “Im Abendrot”, a little theatrical and resorting to some stock phrases, but with a bold tenor voice that doesn’t overdo the artifice and projects without trouble. Pronunciation and articulation were notably good in Wolf and Haydn, too, and although he participates as a concert-, not opera-singer, his voice suggests suitability for heavy stage duty—up to and including Wagner—in his future.
Kyung Soung Han, also Korean, continued with skippable Schubert (“Rastlose Liebe”), Szymanowski’s “Entführung” to which her high-octane voice responded better, and then “Rejoice” from Handel’s Messiah. The coloratura of the latter was a joy to listen to; clear and nimble, and only marred by a surprisingly French pronunciation of “re-shoice”.
Back to the double basses at Studio 1 who got their second round under way. Jakob Fortuna, Ha Young Jung and Olivier Thiery all lined up in the afternoon to play the specially commissioned composition of Nicolaus Richter de Vroe’s, “Atlas Textures”, one sonata (Hindemith, Mišek, Hertl, or Proto) and one concerto (Bottesini’s in h or f-sharp, Koussevitzky’s in f-sharp, or Tubin’s), a compact three hours of double bass playing seemed just the ticket. Not a lot of surprises, though: Fortuna delivered more or less a repeat of his first round performance: Much beauty of tone, but not very accurate. At times even debilitatingly out of tune—although the second movement of his Hertl sonata and the last of the Bottesini concerto gave a glimpse of what he will be capable of, once more consistently and more accurate.
The commissioned piece begins and ends with Atlas’ heaving, inhaling and exhaling. At the heart of the matter is a “Gravity Dance” preceded and followed by a “Gravity Song”. Before getting there, the work sounds like an old steel bridge slowly folding, or an ocean liner’s death song. Richter de Vroe has the players elicit sounds from the instrument in almost every way for which the double bass was specifically not intended. That can be great fun, but when applied gratuitously or not well integrated by the interpreter, it loses the novelty-aspect it probably never had.
Ha Young Jung wasn’t happy about her performance—the poor thing sat in her practice room in the process of dissolving into a pool of disappointed tears. But her deliverance, though spotted with imperfections, was just fine. Certainly any mistakes or squeaks in the Mišek sonata and the Koussevitzky concerto were the price of recklessness in the name of musicality. As is her style, she dove headlong into the pieces with the attitude and tone of a cellist and that still put her well ahead of most colleagues this year. In Atlas Textures she took a gentler approach, her ocean line sank further away before it changed into a warped didgeridoo. She dug into the work with the vigor that is becoming her trademark. Gravity Dance emerged as a song interrupted by threatening intrusions of indefinite low notes; the strings were allowed to resonate richly in the pointed pauses, moments of respite, distant cousins of silence.
It may have been the help of the score, or the fact that I now heard it for the third time (and still didn’t understand it), but Olivier Thiery made even more sense of Atlas Textures. Slightly faster, he made the spiky trial sound downright elegant. There isn’t, to my knowledge, an instrument Hindemith didn’t compose a work for; amid the quantity and variety, the double basses get the better of the master of Gebrauchsmusik. Thiery’s ease and accuracy are truly special, and except for some slight marring of the Koussevitzky concerto’s end he very impressively reinforced the excellent first impression he had made on day one.