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Ionarts at Large: Notes from the ARD International Music Competition (Day 9)

Day nine of the ARD International Music Competition saw the conclusion of the second round of string quartets in two blocks of concerts, featuring five groups, and eight different works. The Brodowski Quartet (UK/Germany) made the start with Felix Mendelssohn’s Quartet in f-minor op.80. A tad hectic in the opining and surprisingly fast in the first movement, it was right on the edge between rushed and invigorating; possibly odd, maybe exciting. Good ideas about performance details were noticeable, as were small infelicities. Innovative accents and again a speed-demon approach cast the second movement in a new light, too. Instinctively the discrepancy to one’s own expectations might have this a bad thing, but the experience of a new sound is actually quite bracing. Nicely understated the slow movement, the fourth movement was: fast--always, skilled--very much, but occasionally imprecise. Very interesting and very entertaining in its own way, but maybe not the stuff that will get you advanced in a competition.

I would have advanced them anyway, just because their choice of Schnittke’s Quartet No.3 was so inspired and their performance impassioned. The opening of that work is as effective as any, drawing the inclined listener into its world of sounds at once. True to his polystylistic approach, Schnittke’s work seems to shift shapes and change colors at all times, covering in spirit (and sometimes quotation), the musical world from Bach via Beethoven to Ligeti. And yet there is nothing incoherent or quilt-like about the work: everything Schnittke does is well integrated into the quartet’s fabric. His subversive shifts from harmonically conventional invented and real quotations are ever scrumptious.

While being engrossed by a faultless performance of a slightly less familiar work (this being the first time I heard this Schnittke quartet in concert), it is difficult to say how much admiration belongs to just the performance aspects, how much to the choice of work, and how much to the composition itself. Fortunately, only the jury has to concern itself with that. (I am hoping that Schnittke’s anti-modernist style is not still considered “polito-musicologically incorrect” and discriminated against.) The audience meanwhile can just sit back, silently tap along, and smile broadly.

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)

The Galatea Quartet opened with Ligeti’s String Quartet No.1, “Métamorphoses nocturnes. The humor and peculiar Béla Bartók-inspired nocturnal sounds are embedded in rather tranquil material, the dancin’ and rockin’ moments of which come a little late for impatient or unsympathetic listeners. But when they do come, they will jolt one way or the other, before Ligeti falls back into a mysterious, murmuring tone. A good performance by this Swiss/Japanese group, but not up to the level of how I have heard this work before, either on record or live. Brahms’ op.51/2 followed, laudably light after the wobbly beginning, but threatening to fall apart. The cellist was notably playful, the inner movements (apart from some struggle with intonation) bland, and the finale precise again, and aptly aggressive.

Only me and fellow doubters of the Brahms quartets’ merits will have been disappointed by the Polish boys from the Apollon Musagete, a favorite after the first round, to have chosen op.51/1 instead of one of the late Dvořák quartets, which were also an option. The group’s choice of Lutosławski’s quartet from 1964 meanwhile was understandable given the common idiom and likelihood that their countryman’s quartet has long been part of their repertoire. The first movements of the Lutosławski quartet had been intriguing and entertaining with the Gémeaux Quartet, too. But it could well take a Polish quartet intimately familiar with the work to rescue it from the lengths of the meanders latter half. With Apollon Musagetes, the quick glissandi stood out (like a cheeping birthday shout-out to Messiaen), as did how the first violinist (in keeping with Bruce Dickinson’s dictum) “really explored the space” with his pizzicatos. They succeeded with Lutosławski in that even the ending, though still demanding very active listening, was suspenseful and subjectively shorter.

Heaves & Pomerray, the British/South African Quartet, played the same Brahms as the colleagues who preceded them, but they didn’t play it the same way. Thankfully, as it turned out, because every one of those four movements was good, not to say stupendous. They tackled the first movement at a fine clip, never letting the music grind them down. There were genuine touches of delight in the second movement and complete evenness among the four voices (unlike in round one) from which the instruments emerged to sing; quiet passages were hesitant, but never halting. The elegant momentum was continued into and through the third movement, they sounded much less hard working than Apollon Musagete, and the accuracy and expressiveness of the finale sealed a Brahmsian triumph. The Bavarian Radio, which records all performances from the second round on, might as well press that one straight to disc.

Their Second Quartet of Ligeti – in my mind the unofficial soundtrack to David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” – furthered this good impression. Ligeti’s work is a terrific panoply of weird evocations. The first movement virtually requires the audience to hold its breath. Later on, the notes become little ants crawling down your back, intermittently dancing a Sarabande. Brutality, at last, comes out in the fourth movement, just before the twilight rises in the finale with dawn approaching in rich colors before the movement begins to bustle, teeming with life again. Very nicely done, indeed, and the only obvious choice for a semi-final inclusion among the participants of the second round.

Last for the day was the Verus Quartet, a favorite after their mature and very cultivated performance in the first round. Brahms op.51/2 and that dreary Shostakovich 13th quartet were their program. In as unthankful a work as the latter, a quartet is less likely to rouse (as with Schnittke, or proper Ligeti) – and so they have to rely on impressing them and the jury, which can be something quite different. The supreme technical capabilities that the Verus Quartet had already shown undoubtedly favored them, but DSCH – even no.13 – cannot live on accuracy and polish alone. Grit is of the essence, and top-notch Shostakovich really ought to sweat blood. The Verus Quartet’s Shostakovich didn’t even perspire, although it was accurate and distinguished, alright. Did they think: “Knock on wood, let's hope we’ll advance”?

Their Brahms was perhaps the disappointment of the day: Expecting so much from them, they delivered something less than precise, neither full bodied nor particularly elegant… a compromise that only worked in the third movement, and even there not very well. The finale was a little unhinged, but at least that they played as though they meant it. There was no doubt they would advance into the finale (as they did), but solely on their first round performance, I’d say.

Recommended recordings of the string quartets played in this round:

available at ArkivMendelssohn,
String Quartet No.6, op.80, Eroica Quartet

available at ArkivSchnittke,
String Quartet No.3,
Kronos Quartet
available at ArkivBrahms,
String Quartet op.51/2, Mandelring Quartett

Quartet No.1,
Hagen Quartett
available at AmazonBrahms,
String Quartet No.1, op.51/1, Alban Berg Quartet

available at ArkivLutoslawski, Quartet for Strings, Hagen Quartett (ArkivCD)
available at AmazonLigeti,
String Quartet No.2, Arditti Quartet

available at ArkivShostakovich,
String Quartet No.13, Shostakovich Quartet

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