Over the last few years, the most reliably reoccurring signal that another year has passed (and scarcely an idea where it went) is the ARD International Music Competition, when I sit in the various venues spread out over Munich with colleagues and listen to tons of young musicians playing the same pieces over an over. The ARD Competition features about 20 different instruments and chamber ensembles, four at a time at various, usually four-year intervals. And in most categories—string quartet being the most notable exception—the first round is pure tedium. Cello, one of this years’ categories, might be slightly more bearable than viola (two years ago), but hearing Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro for Cello and Piano op.70 roughly a dozen times a day, for up to four days in a row, results in a similar physical reaction as listening to Reger sonatas for solo viola over and over. Heck, even the ‘indestructible’ Bach can be turned into an instrument of mild torture.
The latter might have something to do with the average quality of the Bach Suite performances (the candidates of the first round can chose to play the Prélude and Sarabande from either BWV 1009, 1010, or 1012), which is astonishingly low. While few candidates manage to mess up Schumann (boring, sure, but rarely outright bad and often enough with a reasonably beautiful tone), even those who play their other chosen works—Schnittke’s Improvisiation, for example—with abundant confidence will falter before Bach, play timidly, limpidly, simply badly. The first three candidates on Tuesday, August 24th—Gen Yokosaka (Japan), Mischa Meyer (Germany), Eun-Sun Hong (Korea) all struggled mightily.
Before a jury made up of Pamela Rosenberg, Anja Lechner (filling in for Anner Bylsma), Thomas Demenga, Ophélie Gaillard, Marie Hallynck, Sadao Harada, and Jan Vogler, Gen Yokosaka started awkwardly into the Prélude, with little trace of a legato, extraordinarily loud fingerboard noises, and a laboured approach only occasionally interrupted by moments where gorgeous tone and felicitous technique allowed for beauty to emerge. A beauty, even if it came in patches, that I appreciated more as I heard more of his colleagues rummage their way through Bach. I loved the potential that probably lies beneath, but not the execution. The Schumann had the necessary consistency, the tone was singing at its best, gentle enough and resonant—extraordinarily impressive at first, and remarkable even after the other Schumanns showed that that was the most likely piece (tiresome as it does get, eventually) for the cellists to shine.
The cellists were originally intended to play four pieces; another classical/romantic work and a (more or less) contemporary one, but were asked to drop one, due to the time constraints that the roster of almost 70 cellists posed on the schedule. Gen Yokosaka thankfully stuck with the modern piece (lots of variety in that segment—and much better than hearing Karl Davydov’s Op.20/2, “At the Fountain”, cute though as that buzzing little charmer can be, if it is played well). Yokosaka’s choice was Marco Stroppa’s “Ay, There’s the Rub” (from 2001): A technical exercise in flageolet and various other more or less exotic ways of treating the strings with the left hand, including rubbing them (flageolet glissandos) which is presumably the source for the would-be wit of the title. Not the most charming work, but very impressively done. He advanced to the second round. [Edit: And since then to the semi-final.]
Mischa Meyer labored with the same Bach—the bass notes of the Prélude’s opening just throw-away sounds instead of being integral to the music, but didn’t have those patches of beauty to offer. The Schumann before that was a little stiffer, not quite as lush-toned, but impressive still... just not enough to advance him to the second round, despite a nicely chugging Ginastera Punena No.2, op.45. Eun-Sun Hong went, as many others, for the sportif approach which to which Suite BWV 1012 is better, err... suited, but sounds an awful lot like the sewing machine method. A whiny tone, especially in the upper register, suggested the above mentioned lack of confidence. More panache, a sultry performance, even, was audible in the Schnittke and the oh-so-romantic, slightly sweet Schumann. Her not making the second round might have been a close call, alas...
Maxime Ganz (France) might have had fewer technical issues in the same Prélude and Sarabande, but noodling through Bach, and sour intonation in the Sarabande isn’t doing anyone any favours. At least he didn’t make that ‘transfigured face’ that strangely befalls the vast majority of cellists when they are playing without the notes in front of them. Just one of many reasons that playing with the notes should be made mandatory in competitions; not doing so only breeds bad habits. The custom of playing from memory (or pretending to do so, at least), so as to suggest a somehow superior mastery of the music (bollocks!) could and should be broken early on at such an event. Karl Davidow’s “At the Fountain”, a buzzy, zippy little thing, was sadly lined with intonation troubles and not taken as fast as it is probably supposed to. The modern piece he chose and performed (rather than the Schumann, God bless him), “Duoton” by Andrzej Bauer, established immediate interest and curiosity, despite gimmicky use of col legno playing, but that wasn’t enough for Ganz to make the second round, either.
Ditto Marianna Sinagra (Italy), whose vibrato-testing-ground Schumann was most notable for the risks she took (eliciting an errant Bravo, which may, however, have come from a audience member additionally enamoured by her highly presentable exterior), but she also lost her line. Although I am inclined to always favour risk over ‘safe’, especially in competitions, I am not sure if the trade-off was proportional. (The jury obviously didn’t think it was.) Her Bach, at least, was better than most that had come so far, but again more an Étude than a Prélude. Luciano Berio’s “Le mots sont allés”, a rather cellistic work (none of those ‘strike-with-a-wooden-spoon-and-cheese-grater-while-holding-the-instrument-upside-down’ instructions) was particularly pleasurable because it was so concise. If she were to have promised to keep it short in the future, too, I would have liked to hear her again in the second round.
Polite, earnest, but sadly boring Wiktor Kociuban made everything, from Bach via Schumann to Xenakis (“Kottos”) sound longer than it lasted. Sol Daniel Kim was too timid with the pizzicato orgy of Isang Yun’s Glissés, and a fine, confident Bach Prélude apparently didn’t impress enough. Like Rei Tsujimoto (Japan), none of them advanced.
Antonia Zharava, one of the youngest of the already very young crowd of cellists, was the surprise of my first day at the competition. Her performance of Bach was stunning. Whether by accident, design, intuition, or naïveté, she not only played the right notes and in tune, but she also found a groove that made sense of the note where almost everyone before had failed miserably. Bach shouldn’t sound like a mere Étude, and at last it didn’t. Unfortunately her two other choices—Schumann and Piatti— were played awfully, and consequently she didn’t make the second round, just like the more even Camille Thomas (Belgium / France).