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From the 2012 ARD Competition, Day 4

Day 4, String Quartets, Round 2

All the ten participating string quartets were given a chance to present themselves again in the second round—a nod not only to the limited number of those who had shown up, but also to the relative proximity of the shown accomplishments. (Which was certainly true for the second day of the first round.)

The South Korean Novus String Quartet, like four other participants, had opted for Ligeti’s 1954 Quartet No.1 in the second round. It’s a work that has just about become mainstream fare among ‘contemporary’ quartets, and rightly so. Little wonder that Luciano Berio’s Notturno, Pierre Boulez’ Livre pour quatuor, Franco Donatoni’s La souris sans Sourire, Hans Werner Henze’s Quartet No.5, György Kurtág’s Officium breve, Conlon Nancarrow’s Quartet No.1, Helmut Lachenmann’s Quartet No.3, and Wolfgang Rihm’s Quartet No.9 got no takers. Only Henri Dutilleux’s Ainsi la nuit, the other contemporary classic, was as popular with four picks, while the Acies Quarett and the French Quatuor Zaïde bucked the trend with Wolfgang Rihm’s Quartet No.4 and Iannis Xenakis’ Tetras, respectively.

They hopped into the grateful Ligeti’s Métamorphoses nocturnes with gusto and a sinewy, full bodied sound, shy on atmosphere at first, and with unimaginative pizzicatos (which, granted, is the international standard for string players at all levels), but great piano-pianissimos. Some atmosphere arrived yet, but not the grasshoppers, cicadas, and ‘David Lynch’ that I usually associate with the work, but more beeping cartoon Martians and “Red Dwarf”.

Their lean and pointed, rhythmically compelling Dvořák was rather straight-laced and got under way, tightly squeezed, with awfully little lilt. Their very harmonious-homogenous second movement displayed the viola from its finest sounding side, the third movement started très explosif, but as with much of the other movements, the beginning seemed to promise more than the follow-through delivered. That became noticeable when the last movement, slow to the point of phlegmatic, became a little long in the tooth...

available at Amazon
G.Ligeti, String Quartets,
Hagen & LaSalle Quartets
DG 20/21

available at Amazon
H.Dutilleux, Ainsi la nuit et al.,
Arcanto Quartett
Harmonia Mundi

available at Amazon
F.Mendelssohn-B., String Quartets,
Talich Quartet
Calliope (oop)

The Quartet Jana (China/Japan) had opted for Dutilleux’s Ainsi la nuit (1977 a Library of Congress/Koussevitzky-Foundation commission), which is another work that could benefit from completely re-thinking the approach to pizzicatos in general, and in particular regarding the Jana’s performance. Secure and steady soft notes in the much exposed highest register were among the outstanding features of the four musicians, and there was no sag in energy or cohesion as the quartet went on… if anything, the players got incrementally more into the music and consequently got more out of it.

With admirable lack of pathos, the players didn’t bother soaking in the applause by traipsing on and off the stage, but went right on with Mendelssohn’s String Quartet op.12, which is well chosen fare to follow the complexities of Dutilleux. Brahms or even Dvořák on top of Ainsi la nuit would be density-overkill and not a lot of fun for most listeners. Mendelssohn’s first quartet effort—and he starts out, as a Wunderkind should, with an absolute masterpiece—is a post-Beethoven, classically elegant work infused with romantic urge. Why-ever these works, all of Mendelssohn’s string quartets, were relatively neglected until only ten, twenty years ago (especially since Mendelssohn as a name didn’t have to be discovered like, say, Onslow) remains a mystery to me. They are jewels of the string quartet form and also among the finest works within Mendelssohn’s output.

The first movement of the quartet foreshadows Mendelssohn-phrases that pop up in another underrated favorite of mine, his Second Symphony. The Quartet Jana was a light and lighthearted in the second movement; the 20 year old composer’s lyrical genius (don’t be misled by the low opus number) was done a fair amount of justice in the third movement.

The Calidore String Quartet played Mendelssohn’s nominally Second Quartet, op.13 (composed two years before op.12). It opens with a grunt, a deep breath, before it gets under way. It wasn’t surprising at all to hear excellence from the American Quartet, given the plethora of fine North American string quartets these days: Parker, Afiara, Daedalus, and the seniors among that generation: Pacifica… to mention the first few that come to mind. The Golden State Calidore String Quartet, not yet two years old as a group but already with competition experience and merits, flaunted a nicely nuanced slow movement, lovely vocal interplay, a flat, ‘democratic’ hierarchy in which, if anyone, the second violin seems to be the leader. The third movement, like many of these and the previous day’s movements, was emblematic for how qualitatively near all these quartets are to each other. There’s little that stands out in either direction; none are sub-par, and only one stands out at all. In this case, the Intermezzo could have used a swift kick in the rear to avoid the danger of prettiness… the nifty few last bars and the fine transition into the Presto-Adagio non lento Finale notwithstanding.

In Ligeti’s First Quartet, Métamorphoses nocturnes, the Calidorians had more discernable pulse and character than the Novus Quartet, above average viola pizzicatos, and plenty charges and (electrical, mind you) discharges. If it sounded more learned than lived, then that’s probably because it was.

The most experienced quartet in the 2012 ARD Music Competition, and the oldest, is the Acies Quartet. Founded in 2000 and for the last half dozen years in the same lineup, they have—if I’m not mistaken—never participated in a competition they didn’t win, and they are obvious favorites to finish this competition ahead of the rest… if they don’t fall into the trap of playing it too safe. Certainly their Wolfgang Rihm Fourth Quartet didn’t suggest they were playing it safe… then again, that piece can’t really sound as though it was being played safe. There was an assured ease, though, present through all its extremes, detailed and with a bucket-load of different shades: hollow, saturated, shrill, twittering, morbid, molten-lyrical and whatnot.

Neither was safe timidity a problem in the Brahms Quartet No.1, op.51/1, which is particularly fortunate, since that kind of Brahms without risks or recklessness can be painfully boring. The first movement was terrific, lilt and wit gave the Allegro Finale the necessary push after especially the third movement was more comodo than it need have been.

I shamefully skipped the Quatuor Zaïde that day, missing their Xenakis and Brahms op.67, but will catch them again in the semi finals.

The Jury at the 2012 Music Competition, headed by the British music critic Paul Griffiths (“The String Quartet: A History”), who replaced the jury’s designated chairman Markus Hinterhäuser, consists of:

Vladimír Bukač, Czech Republic, Talich String Quartet

Ruth Killius, Germany, Zehetmair Quartet

Raphaël Merlin, France, Quatuor Ébène

Heime Müller, Germany, Artemis Quartet

Jacqueline Thomas, UK, Brodsky Quartet

Öyvor Volle, Norway, Vertavo String Quartet