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Ionarts at Large: Notes from the ARD International Music Competition (Days 13 & 14)

Day 14

Attending the finale for Bassoon this Sunday night was gratuitous after the long string quartet finals marathon on Saturday. My capacity to take in the subtle and even the unsubtle difference in bassoon playing was diminished, and as a non-specialist, fairly unexposed to this instrument, I could judge these players no better than I could a figure skating competition. I can tell when their bum hits the ice, of course, but I have no pretensions to distinguish between a double-Salchow or –Lutz jump. I liked Christian Kunert when I heard him in the first round, and I liked his Weber Bassoon Concerto in F-major he played for the final. So did the audience which also gave the only remaining German its audience prize. Phillip Tutzer from Italy played the Hummel concerto in the same key, and as Kunert, he got a second prize out of it. A third prize was also given – to Václav Vonášek from the Czech Republic. And – for the first time in the history of the competition – a first prize was handed out, too. Marc Trénel from France who, like Vonášek, played the André Jolivet concerto, took home that coveted prize, as well as the special prize for the best interpretation of the commissioned piece, which was Adriana Hölszky’s “Grille (?) for solo bassoon” played in the semi finals. I listened to it with some appreciation – Trénel’s and Kunerts lovely tone, especially – but no capacity to make conclusions myself. With the bassoon final, the competition part is now over, and all winners chosen. The remaining concerts (17th through the 19th) serve to showcase the prize-winners in various chamber and orchestral concerts and are broadcast live on Bavarian Radio, then telecast on Bavarian Television. For closures sake, I will be there.

Day 13

The many “ticket sought” signs in front of the Prinzregententheater on that Saturday afternoon made clear that the string quartet final competition was to be the highpoint of the 2008 ARD International Munich Competition. After so many wonderful performances having already taken place in the previous three rounds, the last four quartets would offer the pinnacle of the string quartet repertoire – Middle and late Beethoven and one of the Bartók quartets. What more can the chamber music loving ear ask for?

The first of the four participating quartets were the Afiara String Quartet with Valerie Li, Yuri Cho, David Samuel, and Adrian Fung from Canada, and playing together for some two years. Bartók’s Third String Quartet, chosen by three of the four groups, strikes me as a less catchy than his First of Fourth, and unless played with a lot of heart, it can be a rather monochrome affair. So was the Afiara’s, too, but not without a few very fine touches: the very, unnatural metallic sul ponticello passages, Miss Li’s truly ppp pizzicatos, the compelling rhythm that finally broke through towards the quartet’s end [12], the incredibly synchronous violins, and not the least their homogeneous (if not particularly full) sound which occasionally bordered something too dense. Good enough, without being special.

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)

Then came Beethoven’s second Razumovsky Quartet op.59/2. It started modestly, with phrases kept on too short a leash, as though they did not dare play them all the way through. They played their Beethoven aggressively, of course, but with too little volume for that kind of an attack on the notes. And then intonation issues started hampering the playing more and more, cohesion lessened, rhythms slackened, the Molto adagio was slothfully slow, its expression timid. Had they never thought to get that far, and skipped learning the Beethoven? It felt that they were sight-reading at this point, and it still got worse. Riddled with mistakes, the Beethoven disintegrated before one’s very ears and the result was painful and embarrassing. It wasn’t just their weakest performance of the competition, it was – the Feruz Quartet apart – the weakest performance of any quartet in this competition. Which begged the question: The Heath Quartet had to go home in the semis for this??

Next up the very promising Apollon Musagète(s), who were wonderful in the first round (like the Afiara), and again in the semi-final. After the previous Beethoven melt-down, their op.132 should have been a tonic, even overlooking the less than perfect opening that wasn’t as rock solid in intonation and steady in tone as it would have had to be to make a bolder pianissimo statement. The formerly unshakable security of Pawel Zalejski (his work in the commissioned Shchedrin coming to mind, especially), was now no longer a constant. They had a very interesting way with the Allegro ma non tanto, though it presented not much of an improvement on technical matters. But then, amid an essentially sub-standard performance, came a moment so sublime, so perfect, that the listener could only render him- or herself over to the music completely.

The moment was the opening of the third movement named “Heiliger Dankgesang” and the following section “Neue Kraft fühlend”. Unspeakably moving, in a sound so completely otherworldly that not even the description “organ-like” or “chorale-like” would do it justice. The intensity of individual voices that follows was impressive, as there were several other wonderful moments to observe. Alas, only intermittently--while shoddy string work produced some downright cringe-worthy moments in the difficult last movement. Their Bartók, also No.3, was of one piece, but without any special kick and without having established the rhythm with that inner, compelling necessity.

So far, this final was a vast disappointment, not the expected cumulation of excellence. Out to change this was the Japanese Verus String Quartet which also performed the second Razumovsky Quartet and Bartók No.3. Their round, superlative sound in the Beethoven was brought forth with great explosiveness and followed by energetic pianissimos. A promising statement and fulfilled, at last. This is, for better or worse, the Beethoven of our time: Not afraid of extremes, with aggression, but – thanks to their sound – never harsh. With exclamation marks, but nothing questionable about their intonation or note-accuracy. Cohesive and compelling the Molto adagio; in the Allegretto with delicacy into the thick of it and back. And in the finale they never shied away from even the fastest tempos. By all accounts and every reasonable standard I can think of, this was the best Beethoven of the night – even if lacking a highlight like the Musagète’s Dankgesang. Their Bartók, meanwhile, was revelatory, too. There are other ways to play his third quartet, of course: the Verus Quartet didn’t bring particular transparency or lucency to it and they started out just a bit too polished for my taste. But they more than made up for that with their muscular determination in musical outbursts, which stood out next to extraordinary hushed moments of something approaching silence. And even in the softest passages, they never allowed the music to be lax. Instead, they kept it together with incredible tension. The result was nearly unrecognizable as the same quartet twice played before.

Last to go were the locals – the German/Swiss Gémeaux Quartet. The audience prize, which they garnered that night, is attained partly through good playing, but at least as importantly through programming well and having the home field advantage. They had home field advantage, anyway. And then they programmed the much catchier Fourth Bartók Quartet and instead of Beethoven the more main-stream, audience-friendly Schubert “Death & the Maiden”. Their athletic style so evident in the semi final found good use in the Bartók. Their performance of it was good stuff to hear in concert if you like Bartók already, but it wasn’t the stuff that makes converts. Their sound wasn’t too clean (is there such a thing?) but perhaps too focused on projection rather than balancing that with inflection and hues. To speak in quartet-stereotypes: Too much Emerson and not enough Vegh or Takács.

Once more, they delivered an immensely impressive performance – but also one that made it terribly hard to believe that these four young players were actually having fun with what they are doing. Even in the brilliant pizzicato movement – one of the wittiest moments in the repertoire – they looked and played as grim and seriously as if interpreting Die Grosse Fuge. Thin-lipped and all-earnestness, the result was a sort of empty brilliance. In the finale, violist Sylvia Zucker tried to start the engine of grit and verve, but the steering – especially from first violinist Anne Schoenholtz – still indicated high art as the goal. The result was one of magnificence and about as entertaining as an analysis of the world’s funniest joke. Dazzling and wretched at once.

Fortunately “Death and the Maiden” doesn’t require much of a player’s jocular side. And the first movement of the Schubert was indeed a bravura performance of the kind that suggested that “Death and the Maiden” already is, or will at one point be, a calling card in their repertoire. The rendition was glib, but that did not detract. And of course “cold” can’t hurt Death, and shivers not his Maiden. Alas, concentration was now waning and their admirable, self-conscious and slick perfection decreased further and further from the second movement on, until things flew apart not unlike matters had for the Afiara Quartet in Beethoven. Not that the indiscriminately cheering crowd minded one bit...

The Jury might have, though, because they defied expectations and gave the Gémeaux Quartet a justified (and, if anything, generous) third prize. But then the jury surprised mightily: First by handing the Verus Quartet a third prize also – then by absolutely inexplicably handing the Afiara a second prize – and finally by giving out a first prize at all… to the remaining Apollon Musagète(s). Of course the jury, unlike the voting audience, can, should, and did choose to consider all four rounds in their decision. But if butchering Beethoven amateur-night style doesn’t disqualify from winning a coveted prize, what does? I was as much in awe of the Afiara’s Lyric Suite in the first round as the next guy, but what had they done since, that went into this decision? And although Apollon Musagète(s) was and shall remain very dear to my heart for their performances throughout the competition, a first prize is very generous. Perhaps the idea behind handing out four prizes to four participants was not just a friendly gesture but was to reflect the surprisingly high average quality of this contest, even if the finale was the least satisfying round of it.

Recommended recordings of the quartets played in the String Quartet final:

available at AmazonBeethoven, String Quartet op.59/2, Quatuor Vegh

available at AmazonBeethoven, String Quartet op.132, Takács Quartet
available at AmazonBartók, String Quartets, Takács Quartet

available at AmazonSchubert, Death & the Maiden, Jerusalem Quartet

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