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From the 2012 ARD Competition, Day 5

Day 5, String Quartets, Round 2

The first impression the Anima Quartet makes is that they sound very different from the expected. There’s a sense of timidity, for lack of a better word, behind a screen of expressive business. Theirs is a light tone, silvery and flitting, that first seems like interpretative inefficiency, but soon works its own enchanting ways. Especially in the second movement of the Mendelssohn Quartet op.44/2 which turns out particularly suited to that sound. What may have started out as strangeness was eventually channeled, via a decreasingly nervous slow movement, into a happily frenzied finale. Almost unnoticed, they also managed to keep a titillating alertness throughout the entire work, without a movement or even just a part of it slacking off. That might be more of an achievement in Brahms, true, but even so it’s a quality that can scarcely be overestimated.

Their style—if one can speak of “style” after hearing them only once—would seem top bode well for Ligeti’s First Quartet, which demands brawn and dark stained sound much less than it does charged nervousness and a penchant for the weird and pale. The Anima Quartet had the latter, but they also brought a burnished tenacity to the first half of the Métamorphoses nocturnes, and an air of surprising confidence—as if Ligeti had been in their repertoire for years, rather than being a newly learned acquisition for this competition. If the quartet was ultimately still note-bound, at least it was very well told off the page.

The Anima Quartet’s generally faster tempi—somewhere between trying to prove something and always keeping the music on the run—might have had something to do with their ability to keep the ears firmly tied to the music. The effect of their playing is hard to describe: Nothing impresses in any immediate sense… if anything one might think of a thing or two to criticize. And a little later one looks back, wondering how the music just played could have been so particularly entertaining. I can easily imagine an audience enjoying an evening of chamber music by these performers and leave, delighted, attributing the good time had on the music and general circumstances, not the interpreters. In that sense, theirs is an involuntarily self-effacing way. If I ran a chamber music series, I’d hire them any day… whether I’d advance them to the semi final of the ARD competition is another matter. (And indeed, they did not make the cut for the semi finals.)

The Armida Quartett was back, and confirmed in Richard Schumann’s Quartet in A, op.41/3 their civilized sound, on the light and elegant side which is their one facet of which the offer variations, but no real deviation. As it was, the Schumann—easily tanked by thick, romantic performances (true for virtually all Schumann repertoire)—took very well to the Armida Quartett’s way with him. The way the dug into the second movement with chugging momentum was terrific, and where I had quibbled with the first violinist’s performance before, there were scarcely any quibbles left. The Allegro molto vivace Finale, was propulsive, not profound.

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G.Ligeti, String Quartets,
Parker Quartet

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H.Dutilleux, Ainsi la nuit et al.,
Juillard Quartett

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F.Mendelssohn-B., String Quartet op.80 et al.,
Eroica Quartet
Harmonia Mundi

Hearing Ligeti’s Métamorphoses nocturnes four times in short succession is a real treat. Assuming one takes to the (de facto) two movements of six sections each in the first place, it’s impossible to tire of it (the same of which I can’t say about Dutilleux’s Ainsi), and one hears yet more, every time. In this case, one heard a very fine, detailed, but studied performance, with density and acerbity; in a few sections more finesse, but less energy from the Armida Quartet than the Anima Quartet had just plowed into it.

The last batch of the second round happened to be less varied than what went before. Three performances of Ainsi la nuit loomed, and three performances of Mendelssohn Quartets: twice op.80 (his last, most intense, and harrowing) and once the Beethoven-channeling first, op.12. If there’s not the same Ligeti-like element of enjoyment to exposing yourself to Dutilleux’ seven-partite work so often in a row, certainly there’s a decidedly educational element in following it intently in close proximity… or trying to, at any rate. And Mendelssohn, unlike a few other romantic string quartet composers I can think of, is no chore twice or three times in a row, either… lest of course it not be played well, in which case tedium would be at hand, with or without repetition.

The Quatuor Varèse, hinting at real potential in the first round, didn’t quite cash in on that promise with either Dutilleux or Mendelssohn. The former at least had strong moments in the whispered opening “Nocturne”, or the metallic and eerie “Miroir d'espace”, or the lyrical “Litanies 1”. But for any sense of narrative to be established in this tricky work, the infamous je ne sais quoi was missing. Or it simply wasn’t compelling enough. The Mendelssohn started super-charged, racing away as if late for the train… with relentlessness—but in doing so missing a good deal of music along the way. Superimposed energeticness continued in the second movement and started then and there to become tiring, even though the general idea was the right one: this movement does need grit and determined digging. The Adagio was played prettiness, but too careful and soporific… and the Finale lost its way and erred into pleasantry and empty vigor.

Compared to that, Gagliano Quartet did rather well. Dutilleux contained expressive urgency as if they really wanted to communicate something with the work. That might be giving them too much credit, but even faking ‘meaning’ would be a formidable and important skill. Greater dynamic bandwidth and an end of “Temps suspendu” that hung like a Calder mobile were the principal strengths in this interpretation of Ainsi la nuit.

Their opening of the Mendelssohn was much less overtly pronounced than the Varèse’s, but taken in one fell swoop which left them room for added zippiness which they employ to good use in the finale of the first movement. That also served the second movement well, which is dependent on contrast and its densely argued and concentrated moments, something the Gagliano Quartet dealt with nicely. The Adagio has a tendency to be a little longer than necessary, which was no different here, but in the Finale, when it was most needed, the international quartet packed another wallop on top of the goings-on.

I might have liked to see them in the semi finals on account of their Gideon Klein Fantasy and Fugue for String Quartet alone, alas they were one of four quartets that did not make the cut.

The final word of the day was the Quartet Berlin Tokyo’s in—again—Ainsi la nuit and Mendelssohn’s op.12. Hesitant and un-mysterious in the Nocturne, the played the notes as on the page, rather than the music they are meant to depict. In all, the whole performance made me wonder why the quartet hadn’t chosen Ligeti, instead, since it didn’t impart or even betray any musical comprehension of Ainsi. At least it got better toward the more cogent Nocturne 2 and Temps suspendu.

For a while Mendelssohn’s lovely quartet, it felt as though a certain Dutilleux-unhappiness had carried over. The first movement was competent, but didn’t yet suggest the boost needed to leave with a such good impression that the previous effort would pale in comparison. That boost came in the second movement, though: A special, gratifying combination of delicacy and wit that led into a third movement marked by an unsentimental hint of genial desperation which in turn led into a searing, all-or-nothing, make it-or-break it finale. “Make it”, in their case.

Now off to the Clarinet Semi Finals; the String Quartet Semi Finals will take place tomorrow, September 12th.