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Ionarts at Large: Notes from the ARD International Music Competition (Day 10)

On day ten of the ARD competition I took a vacation of sorts – by skipping the four bassoon candidates who played in the second round’s morning recital. But at 4PM it was time to hear at least two clarinetists at the Prinzregententheater where I duly listened to the two 24-year old Frenchmen Rémi Delangle and Régis Vincent in the Mozart concerto KV 622. Playing with great (perhaps too great) effort and gusto was again the Munich Chamber Orchestra (MKO). Delangle stood out for his soft, un-intrusive, subtle, rather than virtuosic tone – and the position he took among the instruments. With him, the concerto sounded like a Concerto Grosso with challenging clarinet part. A gracious wit and genuinely friendly disposition shone through his playing, befitting the work and suggesting that he’d not only make a fine chamber music player, but that he already looks well beyond the notes when playing Mozart. If softness and his very natural piano and pianissimo worked well enough in the opening Allegro, imagine how well it befit the Adagio. In the fast movement was bothered by too much ‘wet hiss’ that almost no clarinetist can avoid, others might have been bothered by what I thought subtlety, calling it “emaciated”, instead.

Régis Vincent was much more a soloist than his countryman, and had about the same amount of buzzing – except that this afflicted his slow movement as well. Greater comparison might have helped to consider the achievement of these two players, but in isolation it is difficult to believe that there were not better candidates to come. I, in any case, had to bike over to the Herkulessaal at the Residence (renovated with new seats and floors) for the Violists’ competition, who were already holding their finals.

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)

Four candidates made it into the viola final – all in different ways: After outstanding performances in rounds one and two, Wen Xiao Zheng was a favorite early on – but he didn’t have a particularly good day at the semi-final, missing the point of the required, commissioned work, Tikvah, by a mile. Teng Li advanced through stealthy excellence: Her playing as good as introverted, and about as plain as she herself. Lilli Maijala, her playing very personable but not outclassing the others, made it to the last round, not the least because a final with three candidates would have been too sparsely populated. Only the Russian Sergey Malov had consistently impressed in every preceding round. Others, like the Norwegian Ida Bryhn never made it past round two, despite bracing performances. Or they were being handed advancements on account of reputation more than merit, like the recent Primrose Competition winner Dimitri Murrath.

In keeping with the unpredictability, Sergey Malov took his off-day during the final. The Bartók concerto, which I had just heard in Salzburg with the Cleveland Orchestra and Kim Kashkashian, isn’t a piece that the soloist can pull off on his own, if the orchestra doesn’t participate, to begin with. And the Bavarian Radio’s own and principal orchestra, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra – in principle one of Germany’s four best – didn’t. Stuffed with the second and third guard of backup players and with a young, dutiful conductor standing in front of—but not leading—them, they played listlessly through the work. Finding his grove only in the fiery, faster parts was too little for Malov to suggest that the Bartók was merely unsuccessful because of the lack of support.

Teng Li, who played the same work as the last candidate, did at least that: she massaged the lyricism out of the music and offered a greater sense of control, if less ferocity. And it paid off with her being awarded the Third Prize of the ARD Competition. Between the two came Wen Xiao Zheng and Lilli Maijala. Maijala chose Paul Hindemith’s “Der Schwanendreher”, a rare case of “Hindemithean prettiness”. At least for the first two movements. Using only lower strings and winds, it made the solo viola look downright dainty. And of course sound relatively bright before that curtain of dark strings, woodwinds, and brass. The Finn, in a long, dashing currant-colored dress, lolled on that carpet to great advantage – but it couldn’t quite mask the fact that her instrument’s tone simply isn’t beautiful and her precision not quite that of her colleagues at this stage. The conductor conducting the soloist in the harp-accompanied cadenza of the second movement was a bizarre act to watch… perhaps he was just instinctively moving along with the music.

Wen Xiao Zheng opted for the Schnittke concerto dedicated to Yuri Bashmet – and he was back! The concerto is cacophony unleashed – and cacophony reigned in, again. Among Schnittke's last pre-stroke works, it is already a little alienated from his earlier style; dense and dark for the better parts of the first and second movements. It seems rather less accessible than some of the violin concertos or the string quartet and viola sonata heard at this contest, coming closer in style to his cello concertos. But come the the Allegro molto, an extraordinarily affable and thankful lyrical passage of bitter-sweet beauty sets in in. This is cut off, for the time being, by a violent, insane percussive outbreak (finally the BRSO sounds like it is having some fun) and string mayhem. The concluding Largo, too, is Schnittke-like in its unpredictability and constant changes of mood. A Bach-referencing cadenza is followed by the beginnings’ cacophony – purposely covering the soloist’s playing amid the frenzy – only to die down again and work its way to the (far away) end in gently waving figures. A performance undoubtedly deserving of the Second Prize of the 2008 ARD Competition – and handing this student of the Munich Conservatory the audience prize, too.

Recommended recordings of the concertos played in this round:

available at AmazonBartók, Concerto for Viola and Orchestra, Kim Kashkashian / Netherlands RChO / Eötvös available at AmazonSchnittke, Concerto for Viola and Orchestra, Bashmet / USSR MCSSO / Rozhdestvensky available at AmazonHindemith, Der Schwandendreher, Tabea Zimmermann / Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra / David Shallon

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