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Ionarts at Large: Notes from the ARD International Music Competition (Day 6)

With four instrumental categories taking part simultaneously, it is impossible to give due attention to all the participants of the ARD International Music Competition. But one can try, and so I did on day six – while still hearing all four string quartets at the Conservatory. This is the account of the day:

10am, Carl Orff Auditorium, Gasteig:

Under the ears of the jury, including Richard Stoltzman, Clarinetist Marcos Peréz Miranda (Spain) plays the first movement of the Stamitz Clarinet Concerto in B-flat (very beautifully, if a little heavy on ‘acting out’ the music with his body), Debussy’s Rhapsody for Clarinet and Piano no.1 (evocative), and Berio’s Sequenza IXa (the reoccurring fading notes played wonderfully softly and slowly). Beautiful stuff, but I haven’t time to stay and hear Claudia Mendel (Germany) play the same works.

10.45am, running a light:

Flaunting rules of traffic in a way most unbefitting my law-abiding, order-loving surroundings, I bike over to the Conservatory (formerly Hitler’s Office, called the Führerbau) to hear the German/Swiss Amaryllis Quartet (formed in 2000 and modified in 2006).

11.05am, Conservatory of Music, Main Auditorium:

Knowing that they are to record the string quartets of Friedrich Ernst Fesca for cpo, raises my hopes, which are then quickly dashed. I love the sound that Yves Sandoz produces on his cello, but find the upper strings distinctly un-lovely (especially the first violin). A fine Adagio and a very nimble finale of the Haydn Quartet op.77/1 show that the problem isn’t one of lacking technique, but the individual voices are too indistinctive for true joy to kick in.

Interestingly, perhaps ironically, it seems easier to shine in a work like Schoenberg “Three” or “Four”, than a Haydn quartet. Some cynical blackguard might argue that’s because the need for musical sensitivity, beauty, and humor are absent in the former, leaving the players able to concentrate on just the technical aspects. That might just be true as far as impressing is concerned, but not moving.

Schoenberg’s Quartet no.4 should be easier on the ears than no.3 (played by the Gémeaux Quartet on Friday), but at least to my ears, on this day, it isn’t: the Amaryllis Quartet’s performance, even with its several impeccably phrased moments, strikes me as lacking precisely that sense of beauty and phrasing that Schoenberg not only cannot not do without, but so desperately needs.


The Brodowski Quartet (UK / Germany) also looked at the Schulhoff work and could not resist. Their performance is not as funky or humorous as the EnAccord, and places instead greater emphasis on mood. There’s plenty of that to be found, not just in the passages marked pppp (!). Schulhoff is moving into close proximity to Ligeti, under their eight hands. Haydn’s op.33/3 (“The Bird”) shows better balance, a much more prettier tone, and slightly less accuracy than their colleagues from before. They are more in touch with the music, displaying an inherent joy and no undue sincerity and play quite unlike one would expect at a competition: care free.

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)

2.25pm, in bed, napping:

Who would have thought that listening to so much music and what is in essence a three-day marathon concert could be so exhausting?

4.00pm, Conservatory of Music, Main Auditorium:

On we go, with the Galatea Quartet (Switzerland/Japan) who opted for Beethoven’s op.18/6 and Berg’s Lyric Suite. The Afiara String Quartet has laid the bar high in the Berg… too high for the Galateas to meet it. This afternoon they are lacking the ease (not necessarily lightness, but something along those lines) that allows the ears to focus more on the music, rather than the process of making it. The smallest difference in the execution of this piece can make a vast difference in its reception. If there’s no melding and understanding of phrases and too much counting going on, it’s no longer a hyper-romantic composition of emotional extremes, it’s plain boring. Similar matters affect the Beethoven, though an interesting touch of breathy softness in the Andante brings a quality one would not necessarily associate with the old master.


The all-Polish, all-male Apollon Musagete (averaging 28 years, like the Galatea Quartet) shows up with Haydn op.76/3, the “Emperor Quartet”, the slow movement of which could be interpreted as a little courtesy to the competition’s host country, after all, Germany culled its national anthem from it. Theirs’ is stealthy excellence: absolutely homogenous and lead by a very fine sounding first violin (Pawel Zalejski), but without bragging about it. When Haydn asks for it, Piotr Skweres’s cello buzzes about in ways befitting a Moravian dance (or, as my colleague points out, ways rather reminiscent of the opening of the Pippi Longstockings themesong.)

They follow it with Leos Janáček’s First String Quartet, the vaguely feminist “Kreutzer Quartet”, one of the 20th century highlights in the genre. The three remaining groups who have also chosen to play this quartet on Sunday will have their work cut out for them, if they still want to impress: the ‘whiskey & chocolate’ tone of the Musagetes’ and their total commitment are a complete joy.

6.17pm, Bavarian Radio:

Had I pedaled a little harder, I might have caught Lola Decour’s first round bassoon performance at Studio 2. Instead, I catch a breath and promptly miss the door opening to slip into Wukun Zhu’s recital, too. This sabotages my attempt to hear all four categories in one day, because I can’t hear Julien Hardy without missing violist Ida Bryhn in her second round appearance.

7.35pm, Bavarian Radio, Studio 1:

Apart from Ligeti’s second movement (“Loop. Molto vivace, ritmico - with swing”) from his Solo Viola Sonata and the Hindemith “1939” Viola Sonata, I hear a neat Schubert Arpeggione Sonata from her. The beauty of the work is not in doubt, nor that it loses a little on the viola compared to the usual cello version. Without taking away from her achievement, the rendition does sound like more could me made of it. Much the same can be said for Barbara Buntrock who went before her. Brahms’ op.120/2 and Kurtag’s “Signs” for viola, op.5 merely proper and fun, but Rebecca Clarke’s sonata endowed with intensity on top of its natural beauty.

Recommended recordings of the string quartets played so far:

available at ArkivHaydn,
String Quartet op.77/1, Quatuor Mosaïques

available at ArkivBeethoven, String Quartet op.18/6, Quatuor Mosaïques
available at AmazonSchoenberg,
String Quartet No.4, Psophos String Quartet

available at AmazonBerg,
Lyric Suite, Leipzig String Quartet
available at AmazonHaydn,
String Quartet op.33/3, Quatuor Mosaïques

available at AmazonHaydn, String Quartet op.76/3, Quatuor Mosaïques
available at AmazonSchulhoff,
String Quartet No.1 (& Janáček), Quatuor Talich

available at AmazonJanáček,
String Quartet No.1, Pražák Quartet

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