I can’t deny a certain talent for putting my foot in my mouth. Darting up the stairs of the Herkulessaal, where the Cello finale of the ARD International Music Competition’s was taking place, I run into Jean-Guihen Queyras, one of my very favorite cellists, who is attending with his entire, ridiculously charming family, replete with three adorable youngsters. “I’m nervous, of course”, he confesses which I find odd, and then thoroughly misinterpret, because I reply, semi-jesting: “I think you needn’t worry—there’s no one in this year’s crop that will ever challenge you.” He looks at me quizzically for a second, then clarifies, completely unflappably: “Oh, you may not know, two of my students are in the final today.”
Those two students are Gen Yokosawa, born in 1986, and Tristan Cornut (1985), with the third cellist who made it into the final being the German Julian Steckel, about 28 years old. All three had chosen to perform the Dvořák Cello Concerto, which brings me to the first point of (slight) criticism: Why offer such ‘greatest hit’ concertos for the final (Shostakovich No.1 and Schumann would have been alternatives), which in this case not only makes it likely that one gets a lopsided finale (almost half the participants chose the Dvořák, in case of finale), but ensures that the audience gets to hear warhorses, and that the performers get reinforced in studying warhorses. There is no reason to go crazy-obscure with the options they could choose from, but wouldn’t such a competition be a wonderful opportunity to introduce audience and performers alike to works that linger just outside the regular canon, and are still masterpieces? The ones that come to mind immediately would be Britten, Walton (still largely an Anglo phenomenon, both) and Myaskovsky. (The same goes for always choosing Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, in the other categories.) With those works less likely to already be part of the repertoire of an aspiring competition-participating musician, the playing field would be leveled further, and a public service to music-diversity, away from concerto mono culture, would be performed to boot. Perhaps the catty remark of a colleague hits the nail: “But then the jury would have to learn these works, too…”
Anyway, Dvořák it was, and gorgeous though that work is, it does not lend itself to being heard three times in a row. With every round, it seems another five minutes longer, which is considerable, since it starts five minutes early (the cellist just sitting about, twiddling his thumbs) and ends five minutes too late (the final climax seemingly reached, still bumbling around until it finds the exit sign). It would be a tough session, even if the concerto was played phenomenally well. Which it decidedly wasn’t. But this time—unlike in the semi final—the blame does not just lie with the young (and not so young) performers. Which brings me to my second point of (not so slight) criticism, the otherwise so venerable Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and, more specifically, its conductor Christoph Poppen. He brought two modes to this Dvořák, ‘loud’, and ‘very loud’. Then he proceeded to play the work identically, three times, with seeming disregard to the soloists’ different tone and approaches, uninterested in fixing obvious mistakes from one performance to the next, unwilling to keep the orchestra together in the slow movement, and completely foresquare, to boot. Veteran ARD and BRSO audience members, and everyone else who shared their thoughts with me afterwards, were unisono aghast. For shame, because Poppen, who successfully oversaw the ARD Competition for several years, should know better.
Liberal portamenti gave Tristan Cornut’s first movement an old fashioned character, and his anguished vibrato yielded some returns. But his tone—Queyras-student or not—was very tense. There were no liberties in the phrasing, the third movement sounded ever tighter and eventually whiny, instead of delivering Parsifal-like awe and calm. His performance, as everyone’s that night, was better than his semi-final Haydn, and especially his slow movement offered genuinely pleasant moments, but if that had been a performance in a bona-fide concert (though hopefully he’d have had a more sympathetic conductor, in that case), it would still have been a great disappointment.
In case anyone wonders if that’s a fair measure to apply to such a final: Yes, it is. These are not students (though some still are) trying to get into the business, these are professional musicians presumably trying to gain merits to jumpstart an international solo career. They definitely ought to be able to turn in a top-notch concerto performance, as good or perhaps even better than what one can hear in many a non-metropolitan concert hall. (Having heard the semi final of the flutes just before writing this up only corroborates that position; there I heard five out of six performances that could have been plopped on any concert stage to have left with nary a soul disappointed.)
Julian Steckel has a mighty impressive bio: making the finals of several competitions in the last six, seven years, having been a soloist with some of the best orchestras in the world and many top conductors, and having played chamber music with some of the finest musicians available, he is also a member of Abbado’s Lucerne Festival Orchestra. Which raises two questions: why does he bother with the ARD, and should he be judged any less severely (if, hopefully, fairly) than one might judge any performance of, say, one of the jury members? [Interesting aside: one gutsy audience member—not me, I promise—booed every single jury member, except Pamela Rosenberg, as they were introduced.] I can only speculate as to what the answer to the first question might be, but I know my answer to the second one. As far as his Dvořák is concerned, it became clear early on that his routine was going to carry the day. Unflustered by Poppen doing his own thing, and with a tone more suited to emerging from the orchestral crassness around him, he started secure into the first movement and emerged again in the finale with spectacle, playing through some so-so moments with enough effect (and perhaps the local’s nationality bonus) to get a rise out of the audience—and consequently win the audience prize, as well. Even with some cruel downward scales and the least singing slow movement (phrases were never just let go), this was the best (if not outright good) performance of the night.
The reason I found Gen Yokosawa’s interpretation slightly more sympathetic, despite the latter’s tinny, thin beginning (little evidence of the occasionally gorgeous tone I heard from him in round one and the semis) and him being more overwhelmed by the orchestra than the other two artists, was that somewhere in the slow movement (the most lyrical of the night), he seemed to have figured: ‘what the hell’ and developed a devil-may-care attitude that carried him through the third movement. “If the conductor doesn’t budge, neither will I”—and so he pulled out an individuality that was downright shocking for a competition performance. Amid many mistakes that no longer rattled him, he pulled phrases around in ways that it put smiles on faces, and if it was ‘over the top’, I could only think: all the power to you!
Alas, individuality doesn’t really pay in competitions, or at least it came too late. He got a much deserved third prize, but instead of sharing it with Steckel (at the expense of Mr. Cornut, who perplexingly got the prize for the best interpretation of the commissioned Salonen piece—a price I thought David Eggert was a shoe-in for), he was placed last. The jury, apparently in a very generous mood or else led by their knowledge of how good Steckel can be, awarded Steckel a first prize and Cornut a (baffling) second.
[Edited to match the facts: Thankfully individuality got some deserved attention, and he got a second prize, much deserved, even if a third prize might have been fair enough. The jury, apparently in a very generous mood (or else led by their knowledge of how good Steckel can be), awarded Steckel a first prize and, to round it off, a gracious third one to Cornut who also, if perplexingly, got the prize for the best interpretation of the commissioned Salonen piece—a price for which I thought David Eggert would be a shoe-in.]
Perhaps the first prize can help catapult Steckel from orchestra duty to a lasting career as a soloist. And perhaps the jury knows he is capable of fulfilling the demands of such a career. But is a competition’s purpose to reaffirm our preconceived notions of what a performer is capable of, or is it supposed to judge solely the performances during the competition? If the latter, I cannot quite comprehend how any first (or second) prize was awarded at all this year… But then competitions are, among many things, known for baffling non-jury ears. At least those expectations were met, then.
All pictures courtesy of the ARD International Music Competition, © Dorothee Falke
Dvořák, Cello Concerto,
Queyras / Belohlávek / Prague PO
Dvořák, Cello Concerto,
Rostropovich / Karajan / BPh
Dvořák, Cello Concerto,
Du Pre / Celibidache / Swedish RSO
Teldec (also DG)