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Ionarts-at-Large: From the 2010 ARD Competition, Day 13 - Flute, Semi final

Who thought it would be the flutes to come to the rescue of the 2010 ARD competition. That—flutists may forgive me—potentially most tedious of instruments, in the hands of young musicians entering a competition is scarcely a promising scenario, especially not after other instruments with a much greater probability to please have already placed the bar so low. And six Mozart concertos in a row can so very easily be turned into an instrument of torture… nearly as dulling as a triple-Dvořák bill.

Alas, the six flutists—five flautettes and one flutude, the reverse gender distribution from the horn competition—didn’t torture, or dull the senses, they delighted all, albeit in varying degrees. Not just in the Mozart, but also the commissioned work they had to perform, “Quatre mélodies arméniennes” by Bruno Mantovani (not related with Mantovani, the arranger of syrupy string cascades fame). “Quatre melodies” ended up being played in five different ways by six different flutists, and it was interesting every time—a sure sign of quality on the part of the composer, as well as the performers.

Lívia Duleba (Hungary) went first, sensitive to the music behind the notes, bringing out at least two of the Armenian melodies obviously enough to grasp even at first listen. Her Mozart (K313) had poise, keenness, sense, was very well delineated, neatly articulated… not quite enough to keep a colleague from dozing off, but to these ears it was a whole different affair from the Cello-Haydn or Horn-Mozart or even the Piano-Duo Mozart we had endured thus far. I was enchanted, already, but this was just the beginning.

Next up was Timea Acsai, also from Hungary, and her Mantovani, while similar in authentic (?) sensitivity to the melodies, had a clearer sound, very round and woody, smoothly integrating the ¼ tones, and featured one of the most effective, air-less forte possibles. Add to that some very nicely shaped non-vibrato to molto vibrato crescendos. Her Mozart (also the concerto in G), including a very short but very compelling cadenza, had many of the same qualities as did Duleba’s, but came across as more naturally, more maturely played, peaking in a Rondeau that was absolutely compelling, despite its understatement. In its subtle way, this was the best playing in the competition I had heard so far, and if it was going to be bested by at least one following candidate, that isn’t taking away from the fact that I would be happy to hear a performance like it on any stage, at any time. I couldn’t help being reminded of how Emanuel Pahud had recently bored me to tears with the same (in itself somewhat unsatisfying, it should be said) concerto, and how much more gripping Mlle. Acsai’s performance was.

But before I was even finished being delighted, willowy Ivanna Ternay (Ukraine) was up, and she upped the ante again, and considerably. In Mantovani’s piece she went all-out, exposing herself without ever failing, virtually spitting the soufflé notes out of the flute, never over-blowing, or overtaxing the instrument, no matter at which pitch or dynamic range. It would seem that it might help tremendously to be familiar with the kind of traditional melodies that Mantovani refers to, their character, the soundworld, the morning overtones of shepherds’ tunes in the mountains (this is speculation on my part, by the way, not based on information from the composer). Perhaps it is no coincidence that Mlles. Duleba, Acsai, and (in her more extrovert way) Ternay seemed to come closest to that sensibility. But even if that was the most proper way to perform “Quatre mélodies arméniennes”, it was by no means the only way to play it well, as the next three candidates showed.

But first to Mlle. Ternay’s Mozart—the first to play the concerto in D, K314 (originally written for the oboe, and much more amenable to repeat listening than K313): What articulation, what nuance! Individuality was asserted, and Ivanna Ternay displayed a determined will to enchant, not just hope to do passably well. Flutists, these three performers suggested, might be closer in character to singers than are horn players or cellists. There was generally, and especially with this performer, a desire for direct communication with the audience that was evident to all present. What followed the Allegro aperto was the most eloquent, interesting slow movement of this entire competition so far (which, in all honesty, it isn’t saying a whole lot). There was no monotony creeping in only because the tempo was slower, and the cadenzas—her own? Johannes Donjon's—were musical, witty, intelligent, and impressive. The closing Allegro was chair-dance inducing, capping a performance I have no qualms calling great—something that was affirmed by the audience’s shouts of “Brava” and Mlle. Ternay being called back on stage for an unprecedented third time at this stage of the competition.

The Austrian Daniela Koch went first after the short break, and was the first to play “Quatre mélodies arméniennes” completely different, perhaps completely ‘wrong’ [though Duke Ellington reminds us: “If it sounds good, it is good”], and completely charming with her western ear for the harmonics and melodies. She turned it into a work of birdsong, an extension of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. Her very attractive Mozart would have elicited raves from me, just two hours earlier, but going fourth and having been spoiled so far, I caught myself taking the very high level of her performance for granted.

Sooyun Kim (USA/South Korea) went almost as far as her Ukrainian colleague in pushing the souffle-marked notes, and gave Mantovani’s piece a darker hue, a sense of imbued mist, pagodas and small temples on dark, green mountains, rather than wistful melodies waving by goat carcasses on yellow stones and browned grasses amid wide open stretches of sloping mountain sides. Most impressive was the new sense she gave to the staccato sextuplets of brutally fast semiquavers… they allowed the irregularly occurring outliers to form a melody by turning the repeated notes into constant background, rather than a mere line from which the performer deviates every so often. In Mozart, I found my colleague’s (not entirely flattering) comment of a “mechanical bird” appropriate, and her cadenzas silly, but again, on its own rather than post-Ternay, this would have been fully satisfying.

Last to go was Loïc Schneider from France, who probably went furthest in Mantovani’s piece, equally exaggerated (in a good sense) as Ternay, and the first to get a real beat going in the staccato/tenuto passages somewhere around the first third of the work that had hitherto seemed the most dispensable of “Quatre mélodies arméniennes”. His fortissimo was as good as Acsai’s, but his ‘bird runs’ didn’t raise the bar any further than Kim and Koch had. His Mozart was a touch put-on, but then that always beats timidity… and there was none of that in his performance. He didn’t overdo the ‘beauty’ part of the concerto, partly due to a lot of extraneous air in his tone, and some of his notable efforts in the slow movement seemed to produce more heat than light, but he still showed how easily and obviously a titillating performance stands apart from mere goodness. Pushing the Allegro to the brink in order to squeeze out as much excitement from Mozart as was possible hearing the concerto for the fourth time in a row, he was not even bothered by the hammering that started somewhere in the building, creating a rather irregular off-beat to Mozart’s concerto.

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W.A. Mozart, Magic Flute,
Jacobs / AAMB
Harmonia Mundi
I wouldn’t hold it against the accompanying Munich Chamber Orchestra (MKO), again on Mozart duty, if they took a year-long sabbatical from the composer after this ARD competition. Heck, I want to take a sabbatical from Mozart, too—except that I also really want to hear René Jacobs’ new Magic Flute, no matter what other damage has been done. That said, the MKO once again went well beyond the call of duty, still giving their best even for the sixth performer. At least they were being more highly rewarded by their musical collaborators that day, which must have been gratifying.

From this qualitatively most pleasing semi final, four flutists advanced, Ivanna Ternay and Loïc Schneider most obviously, as well as Daniela Koch and Sooyun Kim—the four, perhaps by coincidence, to have chosen K314. I will miss Timea Acsai’s understated presence more than I might have missed Mlle. Kim in the final, but at least this was a decision where the jury was spoiled for choice, and any of these will be worth hearing again in the final, no matter how you feel about the flute as an instrument.


Charles T. Downey said...

The same Bruno Mantovani, I think, mentioned here last month, with a new opera planned for the Opéra de Paris next March and newly appointed as director of the Conservatoire de Paris.

Anonymous said...

Ternay's Cadenzas were by Donjon(not her own). Schneider played the same cadenza in the first movement.