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From the 2012 ARD Competition, Day 3

Day 3, String Quartets, Round 1

Running a prestigious music competition puts its administrators in a most enviable position. Not only for getting to foster musical talents—gratifying as that must be—but even more so for being able to shape the performance industry from the ground up. Bad habits are formed early and easily reinforced and a competition, as one of the first professional experiences for many of the participants, can undo some of the damage. Like putting a stop to the circus-shtick of playing without a score. Or better yet, by requiring them to look beyond the usual repertoire with the selection pieces from which the prospective musicians have to chose. Even if a singer or clarinetist or, in this case, string quartet opts for the most conventional of the given choices, they will still—one hopes—have looked at some of the others and might remember them when they run out of new things to play.

The ARD International Music Competition does that more notably this year than they usually do. Augmenting one of two dozen Haydn Quartets or one from Beethoven’s op.18, the participating string quartets in the first round also had to play one of the following: Berg, Lyric Suite. Bertold Goldschmidt 1, 2, or 3, Pavel Haas 1, 3, Janáček 1, Hindemith op.16 or op.22, Gideon Klein Fantasy & Fugue, Hans Krása, Schoenberg op.30, Erwin Schulhoff Five Pieces, Stravinsky Three Pieces & Concertino, Viktor Ullmann 3, or Zemlinsky 2. That’s repertoire-enrichment by fiat, even if the Janáček sucked up some of the alternative-repertoire-oxygen, being chosen by four of ten Quartets.

Six String Quartets had already played in this year’s ARD International Music Competition, four more were scheduled for Sunday, September 9th. All four had virtues that would have merited a second-round ticket, all those virtues were different, and none of them convinced outright. Since every one of the ten quartets was moved on into the second round, there’ll be plenty opportunity to hone in on their divergences and relative merits.

The Armida Quartet from Germany counted a very well played Haydn Quartet op.76/1 among their assets, a light divertissement and fleet in the first movement, husky and with a wonderful sense of calm in a great Adagio sostenuto. On the downside, there wasn’t an excess of transparency or precision, and the husky tone that worked so well in the slow movement and the Allegro ma non troppo Finale, was apparently their go-to sound and that didn’t work equally well elsewhere.

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J.Haydn, String Quartets op.76,
Quatuor Mosaïques

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L.v.Beethoven, String Quartets op.18, 1 & 4,
Quatuor Mosaïques

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L.Janáček, String Quartets 1 & 2,
Guarneri Quartet
Philips (oop)

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E.Schulhoff, String Quartets,
Quatuor Prazák
Praga Digitals

Especially in sections that throw the spotlight on a single instrument, notably the first violin, the quartet produces a thin, inefficient sound—spunky when necessary, but often just a whimper—something the Janáček Quartet further exposed. The low strings seem this quartet’s life of the party, while the two violins, with their tendency to produce pale tones, managed for aggressively electric moments. That kind of monochromatic coloring might better be more to their advantage in the Ligety—among their choices for the second round—than in Janáček, though.

The French Quatuor Varèse showed a very different side of Janáček. The players took risks, dug deep, and came up sometimes, not every time, with the goods. Their sound was burnished, round, as if muffled by velvet, and their cleaner than eerie flageolets splendid. With rubber-band flexibility in the last movement, the Varèse’s approach to Janáček was intermittently, if not consistently, better than the Armida’s take, and altogether with greater promise.

Things were less clear in the Haydn’s op.76/2. Tension and beautiful tone, agility and delicacy without ever resorting to emaciated nicety, occasional oomph and zip, went in their favor in the first movement. But the hoity-toity second movement lacked the drive of the first, and not all was regained during the fine third and fourth movement.

The very international Gagliano Quartet—presumably named after the Neapolitan lutists, not identical with the older Italy-based string quartet of the same name, and already having gone through several line-up changes—performed their Beethoven op.18/1 with professional cool, the air of experience, and not the least fazed by intonation slips, or a mistake here or there, or there. Confidence, which especially the first violinist exuded plenty of, can make all the difference, and a wrong note confidently played beats a timid correct one any day. Assuming there aren’t too many of them. Gorgeous viola-sounds in the second movement and a relished third movement with its highs and lows added to their Beethoven-score; the spotty, slipshod fourth movement detracted from it.

Choosing Gideon Klein’s Fantasy and Fugue for String Quartet was a much welcome move, and a gutsy one. The piece is lyric and biting at once, fabulously propulsive and compelling, but it’s a good deal more challenging—especially for listeners—than the Janáček and without the barnburner quality of Schulhoff’s Five Pieces. The Gagliano Quartet made the flageolet parts of the Fantasy melt right into the subsequent lyrical theme and played the wonderfully unfashionably portamenti up to the hilt. Short, nice, and secure, this was a little highlight of the third day at the ARD Competition.

The sober-descriptively named Quartett Berlin Tokyo (3/4 Japanese and a St.Petersburg-born, Tel-Aviv-educated, Berlin-residing second violinist) just about topped that, by choosing those Schulhoff Pieces (as had, the day before, the Chinese/Japanese Jana Quartet; bless them), by playing the hell out of them, and by opting to play them first, before the Haydn. That’s a plucky, most commendable choice—signaling not just the importance of the Haydn but also their willingness to be measured by their ability to pull op.76/6 off as a finale, without the razzmatazz Schulhoff to sway and maybe whitewash the jury’s memory in case of mishap. It paid off in the Five Pieces—with assurance and cool ease in the “Viennese Waltz” and “Serenade”, for better or worse not going beyond the threshold of discomfort that may have added an intrepid dimension to it. The riveting “Czech folk music”, “Tango”, and “Tarantella” closed out a grateful work in style, very well received by the audience in the Studio 1 of the Bavarian Radio’s Munich headquarter. Now if only the Haydn had been better, their strategy—presuming it was strategy—would have paid off nicely. But a sportive and simple first movement couldn’t quite make up for the superficial Menuetto or the inflexible, mildly strident, though at least single-minded Finale. With that, the Quartett Berlin Tokyo was back among the rest of the lot of Day 3 – with plenty sunshine, but partly cloudy.