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Ionarts at Large: Notes from the ARD International Music Competition (Day 12)

If you hear “Clarinet Concerto” and immediately think “Mozart”, then the dogged Nielsen Concerto can change that, in one way or the other. Either by taking care of the notion that a clarinet concerto need necessarily sound conventionally beautiful as said Mozart (or Spohr). Or because you fall in love with Nielsen in the rare case of a grand romantic performance with vision and extreme lyricism amid the spikes.

Neither of the three performances in the Clarinet Finale of the ARD International Music Competition will have provided for the latter, though one came very close. The others, performed by Marcos Pérez Miranda (Spain) and Taira Kaneko (Japan), provided instead for some of the former.

Even if I account for an unreceptive mood and ears that were not properly attuned for the Nielsen on a strange day, weather-wise, there was no denying that Mr. Miranda, impressive when I saw a bit of him in the first round, was not at home at all in the Nielsen. Neither familiar with the music (which was on a stand in front of him) nor the idiom, he struggled to make sense of the work and find its long lines. His tone was strong, but the effect to which he used it wasn’t well thought out.

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 Quartet Competition, Round 1 (2)
(September 6)

Day 7:
String Quartet Competition, Round 1 (3)
(September 7)

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

Day 9:
String Quartet Competition, Round 2 (2)
(September 9)

Day 10:
Viola, Finale
(September 10)

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

Day 12:
Clarinet, Final (September 12)

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

To be fair, the orchestra that he played with, nominally the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (or at least their summer subs) did not help him one bit. Choppy and out of sync, they stumbled from one vertical phrase to another, never finding the long lines, either. Vertical Nielsen, sadly, sounds like second rate Shostakovich – not like a Nordic romantic. And his concerto for clarinet and snare drum, not necessarily a lovable work, is more susceptible to this than, say, his symphonies.

Taira Kaneko benefited from the BRSO’s on-the-job learning as well as his stubborn intent to go for those longer lines, not beauty of tone. But still, this was such dreary stuff, enough to make one throw the concerto out with the mediocre performance’s bathwater. My ears were listening to Nielsen, but my heart yearning for Finzi.

Shelly Ezra had opted for a different of the four possible works for the finale. Instead of Nielsen, or Carter, or Hindemith, she chose Toshio Hosokawa’s strangely agreeable “Metamorphosis”. Ka-chinging bells and percussion, glissandi and crescendos, pizzicato spikes and percussion blows, high-pitched string twittering, snaps, and sudden silences: it’s a sea of sounds washing ashore our ears. I don’t know what or who metamorphosed, or what into, but the combination of the unpredictable with the eclectic made it easy to stay alert and listen. And that despite a distinct similarity of the orchestral sound (replete with an “Echo-string orchestra”) to the Asian volume of an ethnic meditation music CD have. I was half expecting to hear water-falls or a voice, suggesting I let something go or breath in or out. Speaking of breathing: Mlle. Ezra navigated through the solo part with astounding breath control and the purest, leanest tone of any of the four finalists. She calmly explored the extremes of the concerto, was steadily paced, and secure even in the most hushed of pianissimos.

Last to play was Sebastian Manz, a Sabine Meyer student at Lübeck like Mr. Kaneko. And this was the performance that redeemed the ears to Nielsen’s work, showing that it’s not just a fragmented, rickety variance of expressive swoops and a squeaking old sawing machine. Manz took the work by the horns with faster tempos and greater momentum right off the bat, and a very brawny clarinet sound. And if the conductor wouldn’t seek out the long lines, then so would he. Standing alone, it might not have been a superb performance. But the improvement to the two earlier attempts was so notable that the audience price was his, before he had even reached the Poco Adagio section where he virtually sang through the music marked espressivo.

Cynics might wonder aloud why the orchestra played so very notably better for their countryman… And even if the musicians simply needed those twoin-concert rehearsals before intermission, was this not distortion of competition? It probably was, though given Manz’ own performance, he’d not have been bested by the other candidates had the orchestra floundered equally with him. Still, it surely helped him win that first - not just a second - prize on top of the audience award. Shelly Ezra, meanwhile, received a third prize which she shared with Taira Kaneko.

Tomorrow comes this year’s crowning event of the competition, the finale of the string quartet competition with lots of Bartók (3rd and 4th quartet), Beethoven (Razumovsky no.2 and op.132) and Schubert’s Death & the Maiden. A five hour concert worth looking forward to.

Recommended recording of the Nielsen concerto played in the Clarinet final:

available at AmazonNielsen (& Aho), Clarinet Concerto, Fröst / Vänskä / Lahti SO

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