This is slightly out of reporting-order, but since it’s the most recent round of the ARD I’ve heard, and because it merits comment more acutely, I won’t wait until I’ve caught up with the second round of the Piano Duo competition.
The stage for all the semi finals this year is the Carl Orff Hall in the Gasteig, not a terribly convivial place to hold any concert or recital, with a neutral-to-dry acoustic and rather ugly, at that. Six cellists advanced from the second round, which I didn’t catch, therefore missing a little context. Still, after hearing Tristan Cornut (France), Jakob Spahn (Germany), Gen Yokosaka (Japan), Julian Steckel (Germany), David Eggert (Germany/Canada), and Alexandre Castro-Balbi (France), one had to wonder whether the jury members had been drunk previously, whether something terrible happened to all of them between the second round and now, or whether the overall quality of the competition was simply that low. It was a semi-final with a quality of playing simply unworthy of the ARD Competition.
But first things first, happily one of the few positive points of this day at the Gasteig, namely the performance of the Munich Chamber Orchestra (MKO): This band has, in the three years I have been following the competition closely, established a reputation of being motivated to the nth degree in these ‘duty concerts’; not just capable of-, but reliably providing, the most sympathetic support that these young musicians could possibly receive. Every time they perform at the competition, my estimation of these players gains yet again.
That, of course, means that the onus of turning in a quality concerto (Haydn and C.P.E. Bach, in this case) rests squarely on the shoulders of the soloists. While the MKO might make it as easy as possible for them to succeed, any evident failure doubtlessly ends up in the soloist’s court. And so it did.
The semi final, lasting from 4pm until 9.30pm with only one short intermission, twice pitched three candidates against each other in the ARD commissioned composition for the cellists, followed by three concertos where the participants could chose from either Haydn’s C-major and D-major, or C.P.E. Bach’s B-major and A-major works for cello and orchestra. The commissioned composition is another happy note from this dreary day, because Esa-Pekka Salonen’s “knock, breathe, shine” (available from Chester Music) contains plenty of difficulties while retaining real music and a Salonen-typical rocking groove. (Carolin Widmann describes her encounter with Salonen’s ‘Californian feel-good, belly-centered music’ here.)
That the black pedestal the cellists sat on was shaped like a shortened coffin might have been a bad omen, a symbol for their chances of reaching the final being buried, or at least of Messrs. Haydn and Bach Jr. spinning in their graves. Cornut made the start and it was pretty soon pretty clear that this wasn’t going to be pretty. Endlessly mediocre, constantly struggling with intonation, and with the height of cruelty in the tortured cadenza, this was Haydn (in D, not that it mattered) for mild bleeding of the ears. Jakob Spahn’s Bach (in A, roughly) started well, simply because I like a soloist participating in the opening tutti. But once he emerged, it was no longer so enchanting. At least he was constant in his being off-pitch, maybe some 6, 7 Hz flat. When Gen Yokosaka tackled the C-major Haydn concerto—a little heavy handed, but at least largely in tune and with a refreshingly speedy finale—one noticed how quickly one lowered one’s standards. This was 'OK', and slightly tedious Haydn at best, and it already seemed like a great relief.
After the break, Julian Steckel was the first to try his luck (and the audience’s patience) with Haydn and voila, he delivered a perfectly acceptable concerto performance at long last. Nothing great, nothing stunning, mind you, but with a gutsy cadenza, solid intonation, and hitting the right notes. (Except a few perfectly excusable misses in the very speedily taken finale, but at this point I was giving anyone grateful credit just for being fast.) That his tone in the slow movement was obtrusive rather than beautiful, and his longer phrases capped in an ungainly way suddenly seemed completely irrelevant. I sensed a wave of great improvement now, especially with Eggert up next, who had been the most impressive in the Salonen piece. Alas, honest ears that knew nothing of his allegedly out-of-this-world Bach in the first round and excellent Mendelssohn in the second, heard something quite terrible. Even as flashes of qualitative summer lightning appeared here and there, they were not enough to lighten the dim impression of a forced, nasal tone, missteps (from which he recovered immediately, though), an overly daring (non-traditional?) cadenza, a howling slow movement, and flinch-worthy intonation issues in the finale. Sadly, it was Castro-Balbi’s job to make sure that Eggert’s Haydn would not remain the worst of the evening. He easily undercut the low expectations with short, clumsy phrasing, crooked intonation, and stumbling about in the final (though I was not going to count speed against him, or anyone, at this point).
The result of this display of ineptitude under competition conditions (most of these players have proven themselves elsewhere, including successful orchestra duty) could be a discussion of the sense and sensibility of competitions as such, or at least about the type of performer for whom they make sense and for whom not. More to the point, though, it should lead to a discussion what a jury’s duties are to the generations of past and future winners of such a competition. If it is enough just to play your instrument in tune to advance to the finals, and if any one of the three performers that were moved on (I would have understood perfectly well if the finale had simply been cancelled) win a prize, to boot, then that inevitably cheapens the value of the competition’s prizes across generations. Even if Cornut, Yokosaka, and Steckel suddenly play like young gods in the finale. No one will un-invite someone like Sol Gabetta, the most recent notable ARD Cello Prize winner, from an engagement of course. But those cellists who are not (yet) famous and who could use the reputational power of having placed well in a competition like the ARD’s could suffer from such a disappointing crop. In light of this, the jury might consider not giving out any prizes at all this year (certainly no first prize should be given, based on the semi-final performance alone), even if that would naturally be disappointing to this year’s cello competition alumni.