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Ionarts at Large: Notes from the ARD International Music Competition (Day 3)

When I woke up this morning, it was clear that more viola was what I needed to hear -- and more viola is what I got. My second day at the ARD International Music Competition started only some time around noon, mostly because I had to fortify myself with a solid breakfast to withstand the continued Reger Suite in g-minor assault. Part 3 (of 4) of the first round for violists offered 13 violists vying to advance to the stage where accommodations are paid for (insuring top motivation), of which I saw 9, starting with Megumi Kasakawa (Japan).

A colleague assured me that none of the previous candidates had displayed anything that I might have felt sorry missing. That he thought Mlle. Kasakawa's e-minor Reger Suite and Vieuxtemps Capriccio relatively successful compared to what had come before further made that point. Her Reger had bite, but blemishes; the notes (first bold, later cautions) were there, but not the meaning. The music sounded as unwieldy as it might actually be (but shouldn't sound like, anyway). The qualities that shone through in the Reger were put to good use in the Vieuxtemps, but most notable were the closing pizzicato chords. To hear the Bruch Romance was soothing to the ear in contrast with the constant Regers and Hindemiths. True to its name, it allowed Kasakawa to display a more expressive side. Pleasant indeed, if not necessarily exceptional.

“Exceptional” was long in the waiting on this third day – and it didn’t come with the school-boyish performances of Benedikt Schneider (Germany), either. The ecstatic, forlorn, and angry moments of the Vieuxtemps Capriccio were all missed. This piece is least suited to showcase technical skills, lest it be in the delicate yet confident way that Wen Xiao Zheng had done.

It has been a while, but I’ve dreamt of you, Reger Suite in g-minor! Schneider’s version, though, wasn’t what dreams are made out of. Too regular, too uneventful, too pale – event though very skilled throughout. Only the third movement had a good dash of vigor. Rebecca Clarke’s Sonata, on its way to becoming a new friend, was part of a continuous improvement that ended with some much needed confidence in presentation and tone.

Tomoko Akasaka (Japan) played her Vieuxtemps gently and with good incorporation of the double stops as voices, not hurdles. Her tone was rich and most agreeable and her steady work toward a climax and the subsequent release the best of the day so far, by far. The Reger D-major Suite was commendable for precision and tone – on the merits of which alone she should find herself in the second round. The Schumann op.113 Märchenbilder with which she opened allowed her to display explosivity and light-footedness on demand.

At 4PM, after Lunch break, Nathan Selman (United States) continued the competition with Hindemith Sonata op.25 no.1, from which he played the first three movements. It’s a popular work with violists, because they can show off their skills very well (Hindemith wasn’t a violist for nothing), but it’s not exactly what you would call beautiful, or even pleasurable music. “Dare to be ugly” or at least “dare to be bold” might have been his motto in composing it. And that’s exactly how Selman played this beastly work. He took the first movement by the horns and never shirked from it. Astounding purity and beauty of tone in the third movement and a fine, hushed pianissmo made this the most impressive interpretation yet.

Notes from the ARD Intl. Music Competition:

Day 2:
Viola Competition, Round 1 (2)
(September 2)

Day 3:
Viola Competition, Round 1 (3)
(September 3)

Day 4:
Viola Competition, Round 1 (4)
(September 4)

Day 5:
String Quartet Competition, Round 1 (1)
(September 5)

Day 6:
String QuartetCompetition, Round 1 (2)
(September 6)

Day 7:
String QuartetCompetition, Round 1 (3) (September 7)

Day 8:
String QuartetCompetition, Round 2 (1) and Viola, Semi-Finals (September 8)

Day 9:
String QuartetCompetition, Round 2 (2) (September 9)

Day 10:
Viola, Final (September 10)

Day 11:
String Quartet, Semi-Finals (September 11)

Day 12:
Clarinet, Final (September 12)

Days 13 & 14:
String Quartet & Bassoon Finals (September 13 & 14)

Alas, both the ‘required pieces’ flopped. The Vieuxtemps was not completely unified and focused too much on producing a nice tone on accentuated notes while leaving the rest uncared for. In the Reger Suite in e-minor he didn’t get the high double stops under control and the work soon descended into a constant sense of struggle. The Adagio and Allegro vivace were a marked improvement, but a big wobble (just as I was jotting down the words “marked improvement”) in the former and a memory slip that swallowed two measures just before the end of the latter sabotaged the redeeming effect. The Hindemith would have strongly pointed to a second round appearance, but it is difficult to imagine that below average playing in both standard works would be overlooked by the jury.

Emanuelle Reiter (France) played a similar program, except that instead of cutting the last movement of the Hindemith, she cut the third – retaining the wild, mad ride of a buzzing finale and delighting the audience accordingly. The results were nearly as happy as Mr. Selman’s, with a tone that was every bit as full and a bit rounder, still. My new found familiarity of Reger’s g-minor Suite, slowly breeding contempt, also means that the bar of adequacy is now raised rather high. Mlle. Reiter offered more oversight than Sleman showed in his e-minor Suite, but the Andante sostenuto had its share of flaws. The Vieuxtemps didn’t sound suave enough, but offered a wiry, lean tone of considerable beauty. Altogether one of the better performances of the evening, though it would likely have lost out to several players on the stronger second day of the competition.

Her countrywoman Julie Risbet who also played the g-minor Suite, exhibited striking double stop combinations. Soft but without shrinking back from the notes and, to the music’s great satisfaction, taken equistrong throughout. This left a certain flow to this otherwise less than sinuous music. With a given of absolute precision and innate attention to the dynamic markings, she was free to focus on expressive matters, not worry about upcoming notes. Her Vieuxtemps was just as good – perhaps the first performance that really understood, and honed in on, the wistful nature of the work. Even her pizzicato chords – leaving a lingering question mark in the air – suggested so much. Last night I still had to ‘wiki’ Rebecca Clarke, now I can already hum her Violin Sonata – or at least its first movement. Mlle. Risbet’s rhythm and swing delighted, and I would be shocked if she did not continue to delight in the second round.

“Attention to the notes, not the meaning” is perhaps the single biggest cause for frustration when listening to the same piece over and over. Reger’s D-major Suite this time, and the violist Dimitry Murrath from Belgium. His Allegretto and Vivace were above this day’s average, but without the kick that might have made it stand out among other adequately played interpretations. The exact same might be said for his Capriccio. Tōru Takemitsu’s “A Bird Came Down the Walk” was the reason to listen to him carefully. Haunting colors, breathy touches, and squeaky portamentos with piano chords sprinkled throughout: ‘tis a tenuous web of music, barely possible to keep together – though Mr. Murrath did just that.

After having heard the Vieuxtemps Capriccio 16 times in just over 24 hours, I can more or less tell a successful performance from a dud in four bars or less. Teng Li (China) underlined that point with a disjointed opening and never proved me wrong thereafter. Her g-minor Reger Suite was blasé on the outside, and the relative blandness might just have obscured the fact that there was some very skillful playing beneath it. Not quite the kind that would win her a prize, but enough to want to give her a chance to show more of it. To some extend she did so in the Niccolò Paganini Sonata per la Grand Viola where she found her way from earnestness to humor and spunk, accounting for the first viola-induced smiles of the day.

The final participant of the day was Lotem Beider (Israel) – and one of the few to choose Paganini’s Caprice no.13 over the Vieuxtemps. Good to hear for a change, but at the same time a reminder why two thirds of the participants chose the Vieuxtemps (at least it’s a ‘native’ viola piece) anyway. Her Reger e-minor Suite was impressive – especially the second movement where the double stops where integrated in the music rather than letting the notes torture the instrument. Arad Atar, perhaps better known as a teacher (Indiana University) and the Cleveland Quartet’s violist in the 80s, provided Mlle. Beider with her choice work, the “Alla Bulgarese” from the Sonata for Viola Solo. Strange to the ears and difficult to make something specific of it, this improvisatory-like work quite eluded me after a long day of viola-listening.

Tomorrow I could run over to the Clarinetsfirst round for cover, but having now stuck it out with the violists for two days, I think I shall remain loyal and listen to the last stage of the 1st round, too. After that I can then indulge in the much anticipated string quartet competition's first round on Friday.

Results from Day 2: Jing Yang (China), Wen Xiao Zheng (China), Sergey Malov (Russia), and Sun Yu (who I had not heard) advanced into the second round.

* Please note that "Fagott" simply means "Bassoon" in German.

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