London International String Quartet Competition
This personal response should be read in conjunction with my report in Seen&Heard of the 8th London Competition, held in the City's ornate Goldsmiths' Hall three years ago.
competition, for long one of the most prestigious in the world,
has come on apace. Around the actual competition there are master
classes and talks, coaching sessions for students and amateur quartets,
instrument seminars and workshops, and lunchtime recitals in central
London churches by some of the quartets that didn't make it through
to the semi-finals (full details
of the competition at http://www.playquartet.com/).
The change of venues, both acoustically ideal, encouraged attendance
by large, knowledgeable audiences. Here is an ongoing, contemporaneous
stage by stage report.
Eleven string quartets quartets were invited to London, selected by a team of judges (not members of the live competition jury) evaluating audio recordings 'blind'.
In order to 'sample the field' and to gain an impression of those
quartets which did not reach the semi-finals, I attended two sessions
of the Romantic Repertoire section in Duke's Hall, and heard:
My preferences were clear and positive. The Paizo Quartet*
gave a better account of Nielsen than in either of my Scandinavian
CDs of his four quartets. They were also the most exciting to watch,
and I would tip them (of those I had heard by then) for an Audience
Prize. The Jupiter Quartet gave as fine a performance of
Brahms Op 51/1 as I ever need to hear, firm pulse, lustrous tone,
an inwardness of feeling which breathed life in the present, in
that hall. The Faust Quartet* gave a more convincing and
idiomatic account of the tricky Schumann A major, which poses
more interpretative problems than many another, than did the Johstons
from Manchester, who began it began more tentatively. I failed
to enjoy the Biava Quartet's performance of the Mendelssohn;
perhaps it was over-prepared and too rigidly controlled?
Luckily, the Jury does not have to rely on any single performance to assess an ensemble; plainly, in the above case, it would be a case of comparing unlikes (as it was in the Finals for the audience voting for the Audience Prize). Before being granted an opportunity to present Beethoven at Wigmore Hall, each quartet has to offer Mozart, a contemporary quartet of their own choice and, as the set piece, Dutilleux's Ainsi la Nuit (a modern classic this time instead of a newly composed quartet as previously, that presumably decided to reduce the additional stress of having to prepare a new work fast, as in previous competitions?). Each of those stages marked quite separately without regard for the others.
Having had reservations about competition procedures, marking methods and (from an outside perspective) some of the results in other competitions, I would say at the outset that this one scores for thoroughness and scrupulous fairness, relying on marking without allowing discussion in which dominant members might influence others.
Semi-finals - Wigmore Hall 8 April
This gruelling tri-partite event began at 6 p.m. and was scheduled to end around 11. In previous competitions, at Goldsmiths' Hall, Beethoven was reserved for the Finals; the change this year is welcome but the Beethoven evening still presents a problem for the audience. Two of the late quartets befor the first interval; where else but in a competition would that be inflicted on an audience?
The whole reminds one of those grotesque concert programmes Beethoven himself put on, including some of the premieres of symphonies and so much else. Would not splitting the semi-finals into two normal length concerts not be more satisfactory for everyone? If next time it could be scheduled at a weekend afternoon and evening, with a long break between, would be accepteble on the same day and pay a proper respect to the composer?
The hall was fully booked, but many came late and left before the
end (ourselves included). My preferences were for the Danish
Paizos in op. 131 and the Tankstreams from Sydney in
op.59/1. The Jupiters began op.131 with reassuring maintenance of
underlying pulse, which I had admired in their Brahms, but they
tired towards the end (by which time I was also beginning to tire).
What I, as a listener, seek is not an elusive "best" performance, to compare with many versions in memory or on recordings; just the more humble criterion of a live performance which communicates, is faithful to the composer's intentions and moves me in the here and now; one which makes me feel that I never need to go in search of a "better" or "best" performance of the same work, and leaves me keen to seek out those players in a full length concert.
That is a very subjective judgment, and one that would be unlikely to accord with the average of the judges' points awards, and indeed it did not do so.
During the London Quartet Week, that personal criterion
of mine was satisfied by five quartets, and my two illustrations
are of those that did not progress beyond the first stage:
Semi-Finals: Paizo Quartet & Tankstream Quartet
Final Concert Wigmore Hall, 9 April
None of those my choices reached the Finals, which for us was a
dispiriting evening. The Johnstons gave a lack-lustre account
of the same Mendelssohn op.13, received enthusiastically
by their vociferous supporters. The Biavas displayed impressive
qualities of technique and ensemble, but in a seriously misconceived
interpretation of Ravel's quartet, milking every bar and
phrase for an excess of 'expression'.
With a full interval after each piece (which stretched the concert to three hours before the Jury retired to consider their verdict!) there was ample opportunity to talk amongst the audience; the talk was of surprise at which quartets had qualified for the Finals. Being restricted to those three quartets, we did not cast our votes for the Audience Prize, but had we been obliged to commit ourselves, we would have favoured the Russians.
Atrium Quartet (Russia)
Only formed in 2000 the Atrium Quartet has achieved remarkable results in its short history. It was awarded the diploma of the 5th Shostakovich International String Quartet Competition and then went on to receive the 2nd prize and the jury's Special Prize in the 6th Shostakovich International String Quartet Competition the following year. In April this year the Quartet received 2nd prize in the 7th Ente Triennial International String Quartet Competition in Cremona (Italy). The Quartet is currently studying at St Petersburg State Conservatory.
The Johnston Quartet was formed in September 1998 at the Royal Northern College of Music where its founder members were undergraduate students. Having graduated, the quartet members are now Junior Fellows at the College. The quartet has received masterclasses with members of the Endellion, Sorrel, Nossek, and Ysaye quartets. It has appeared extensively throughout the UK and has performed in festivals such as the 1999 RNCM Haydn Festival, 2001 Beethoven Festival, the Aldeburgh Festival and 2002 SchubertFest where it performed Schubert's string quintet with Ralph Kirshbaum.
Biava Quartet (USA)
Formed in the autumn of 1998, the members of The Biava Quartet are currently studying at The New England Conservatory of Music in The Training Program in The Art of The String Quartet under the direction of Paul Katz. Recent graduates of The Cleveland Institute of Music, The Biava Quartet has been the recipient of numerous honours and was most recently awarded second prize in the 2002 Young Concert Artist International Auditions where it also received The Barenreiter Prize. In addition, the quartet participated in the 2002 Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival as Shouse Artists, the 2002 Pro Quartet Academie in France, the 2002 Juilliard Quartet Seminar at Lincoln Center, the Aspen Center for Advanced Quartet Studies as fellowship recipients in both 2001 and 2002, as well as The 2001 Isaac Stern Chamber Music Workshop at Carnegie Hall.
My report above was completed before the results came through to me the following morning. Having been critical of the line-up for the Finals (based upon my very partial knowledge of the overall performances through the stages) I am pleased to find that the decisions of Jury and Audience were absolutely in agreement with my own opinion.
Competitions remain a constant topic for heart-searching questioning, most recently Neville Abraham's from the platform introducing the Finals, and there are some respected critics who refuse to attend any. Understandable misgivings about the effects upon most competitors of inevitable 'failure' have to be balanced by acceptance of the established and seemingly inevitable place of music performance competitions in the scheme of things, and by their fascination. Unsuccessful participants told us that coming to London had been an enjoyable experience and learning opportunity, and it was good to learn that the judges had given a great deal of their time to informal discussion with the quartets which did not qualify for the finals.
The London Triennial, which I have covered for a decade since it moved from Portsmouth to the City, has a very good track record, with past winners including Takacs, Hagen, Vanbrugh, Vellinger and Belcea amongst those that continue to hold a high profile in UK.
Our week of string quartet fancying brought to mind also the problem of sustaining individual technique at peak level, and the closely related one of cementing the personal relationships which are axiomatic if a young quartet is to survive and flourish after the members have added enough prizes to their CVs. Two of this year's examiners were founder members of the legendary Amadeus Quartet, which continued to dominate British chamber music life until the sudden death of their violist, upon which they disbanded rather than seeking a replacement. The next undisputed UK champions in the field were The Lindsays, who have completed 25 years together and are planning to disband in the near future. They are surely entitled to rest on their laurels, which include an impressive discography, but I have found their playing in recent years exciting but all too uneven. After their South Place concert in December I wrote that 'The Lindsays played as well as I have ever heard them - and that is very good indeed!', but on 5 April, before a small audience at Wigmore Hall, their performance of Beethoven op.18/6 was so rough that it could not possibly have passed passed for the preliminary stages of this competition (Lutoslawski's quartet was lucid and seemed to have taken up their rehearsal time). As against that, a few days earlier I went to hear the veteran Panocha Quartet, whose members had been together since they were students together in 1968, and found their playing still "mellow and fastidious, yet lacking nothing in comparison with the more overtly dramatic and virtuosic performances we have become used to". Perhaps, alongside competitions to help launch the careers of young musicians, there should be other awards to groups for longevity and 'life contribution'?
The organisation and funding of this model competition is a mammoth task for which everyone should be grateful, a learning experience for all which justified giving it more time than is possible for print reviews writing in non-specialist newspapers and music journals; it is hoped that our small criticisms will be taken in good part, and read by those interested alongside our analyses of piano and voice competitions (solo and choral), which were a speciality of Seen&Heard before the recent launch of Musical Pointers.
Peter Grahame Woolf
*Note: BBC R3 is broadcasting Highlights from the London String Quartet Week each morning 13-17 April. I have caught the Faust Quartet playing Berg, which confirmed my favourable impression of them from the first round, and the Paizos playing Shostakovich to my greater satisfaction than did the Russian eventual winners.
COMPETITION PROCESS 9th London
International String Quartet Competition
THE COMPETITION PROCESS (9th London International String Quartet Competition)
from 17 countries applied to enter the Competition and over a weekend
in November in London, the Invitation Jury had the tough job of
reducing these entries down to a maximum of 12 quartets to be invited
to London to compete. Members of the Jury included Corina Belcea,
first violin and founder of the Belcea Quartet, prize-winners in
London, Bordeaux and Osaka over the last five years. Martin Lovett,
cellist and founder member of the world-renowned Amadeus Quartet.
Simon Rowland-Jones, founder violist of the Chilingirian Quartet,
composer, editor of the new Peters Edition of the Haydn Quartets,
and Professor at the Royal College of Music in London and at the
Malmo Musikhogskolan, Sweden. Jill Segal, Director, Connaught Artists
Management, who manage a number of young string quartets. Georges
Zeisel, Director of ProQuartet European Centre of Chamber Music,
INVITATION JURY PROCESS
To receive an
invitation to the Ninth Competition, entrants had to submit an audio
recording of a performance of anyone of Haydn's Op. 76 or 77 quartets
and any significant work composed from 1908 to the present day.
For the first time in its history, the competition also asked for
a video recording (first movement of any significant work composed
between 1827 and 1907).
The Invitation Jury was impressed with the generally high standard. The Foundation would like to thank all the entrants for their time and patience.
THE COMPETITION JURY PROCESS
The jury will
be present throughout the Competition and have access to the scores
of the works performed. The first stage of the Competition is taking
place at the Royal Academy of Music in the Duke's Hall. Over three
days each ensemble will be asked to perform a significant quartet
of their choice composed between 1827 and 1907, a significant piece
composed from 1908 to the present day, one of the last ten Mozart
quartets and a compulsory piece, the quartet "Ainsi la Nuit"
by Henri Dutilleux.
British quartets have often distinguished themselves in this prestigious triennial competition. The Endellion Quartet was the second prize-winner in 1979, the Vanbrugh Quartet won in 1988, the Vellingers in 1994 and the Belcea Quartet took third prize in 1997. This year there were 18 string quartets competing (five groups had dropped out because of injury, funding problems etc.) but there was no entrant from the host country. Everyone wondered why? Pusillanimity was suggested as a likely explanation - to enter and not succeed might do their future careers no favours. The entrants for this millennial competition ranged from world class established professionals (their ages must not total over 120) to other groups which were young and relatively immature musically - and technically too; at least one quartet sounding incapable of having produced a requisite tape good enough to qualify for entrance!
During the finals, I sat next to the cellist of one of Britain's most highly regarded quartets; she told me she had never entered a competition! Some of these London competitors cited several previous competition triumphs, and one wondered why they felt the need to go on collecting trophies. Competitions are an integral part of contemporary musical life, offering challenging experience to younger musicians and steady employment as peripatetic judges for those of their seniors who can afford the time. The same controversies about their value, inevitability and demerits rage every time.
The national emphasis, with each judge sitting behind a small flag, gives out a regrettable (for some distasteful) message. Musical performance can transcend national barriers; the only competition should be to serve the music itself, not to beat other nations. A cause for regret in the London arrangements was that free lodging and meals for competitors from abroad remained available for only one night after elimination. Many quartets are likely to be far from well off and no doubt departed forthwith the next day.
Some competitions foster group solidarity between participants, and enhance learning potential, by encouraging all to stay until the end, and by offering advice on repertoire and future career plans - it is not clear whether any of that still applies in this competition? The last two London ISQ competitions, in 1994 & 1997, ended with splendid gala concerts at the Barbican involving everyone, but this feature was cut out this year, as were some of the venues for prize-winners' recitals. Blackheath (where S&H is based) has in the past enjoyed welcoming the second prize winners for memorable music making, freed from competitive stress.
The London competition is a six-day marathon, its final afternoon coinciding this year with the London Marathon, its competitors simultaneously running through the City of London close by Goldsmiths' Hall. This musical marathon was likewise exhausting for participants, listeners and, no doubt, for the judges who hear everything. Everyone had to play Mozart and Haydn, and the finals are traditionally given to Beethoven (excluding his Op.18). Each quartet had to study a new quartet, specially commissioned from Anthony Powers, even if they were eliminated before their time to play it.
There was a range of 19th C. romantic and 20th C options, but most of the competitors avoided the more radical choices. Few excelled in all departments and, from my five-day samplings of at least one of the several sessions, I formed a tentative view that this year's was not a vintage crop of string quartets - apologies to all those that I was unable to hear - and that there are many young quartets hereabouts that would not have disgraced themselves by taking part. Several came to grief in standard works by Brahms and Ravel and, in the finals, Beethoven.
The competitors were supplied with the Powers No. 3 on the Monday evening and had to have it ready by Friday. It is a ten minute single movement, according to the composer 'about song and dance', which integrates smoothly numerous advanced playing techniques (not long since regarded as mere decorative frippery, e.g. by Robert Simpson, whose Quartet No. 6, an earnest reworking of Beethoven Op. 59/3, was the centre-piece of a Wigmore Hall recital during the competition, in which the Vellinger Quartet demonstrated in Haydn Op. 55/2 and the Op. 59/3 itself that they are still a world class ensemble, six years on). The Powers piece is rhythmically intricate, by turns virtuosic and witty, and expressive too in the melodic central section - a good test of musicianship and rapid learning, and a welcome concert item that should have a good future life after its nine first performances. Its clearly differentiated sections move from preciso, secco, meccanico via sostenuto, cantabile to animato, energico, giocoso. Most of them coped impressively, a cause for wonderment indeed, though some of the players were too dour and missed the humour.
Some of the most pleasurable experiences were in the first stage, before cumulative tension and tiredness began to take its toll. Of the thirteen eventually eliminated, some wonderful performances remain in the memory. The young Tempera Quartet of Finland, which has studied at the Royal College of Music in London, showed great promise in Mozart and Shostakovich No. 10 in which, after a restrained opening, they unleashed unexpected force in the furioso movement, followed by rapt pianissimo in the adagio. The American Coolidges persuaded the sceptical that Schoenberg No. 3 is real, communicative music. The French Quatuor Diotima drew the audience in with their gentle and sympathetic performance of Schumann's Op. 41/3, and they gained the award for the best performance of the Powers quartet. All these can confidently be recommended to chamber music societies for future booking.
During the semi-finals the hotly-tipped Amar Quartet from Switzerland was unable to find the right idiom to make sense of the Verdi quartet - a risky choice because it depends on flair and style to bring it off convincingly; nonetheless they won the prize for the most promising quartet not to gain a major award. The Polish Karol Szymanowski Quartet achieved a far more exciting Verdi performance, but did not get through to the finals - there had been murmurings amongst the cognoscenti that they were insufficiently Italianate in this notoriously tricky piece. To my ears, they had played it with intensity and commitment, and as chamber music by an opera composer, and had followed a splendid performance of the Powers, one of the few to make its final page work - the jazzy violin part is apt to get submerged.
The French Quatuor Renoir (5th Prize) started the Saturday morning with an involving account of Janacek No. 1, which helped them through to the finals, where they let themselves down with an unsuccessful attempt to persuade us that Beethoven's Op. 74 is in the same class as his other mid- and late quartets. The Japanese Quartetto Armonico had given a fine account of Mozart K421, feeling the ebb and flow of the music with their whole bodies, and followed it with a superb Ligeti No. 2. They were badly advised to essay Beethoven Op. 130 in the finals and, worse, to have the temerity to add the Grosse Fuge Op. 133 for good measure after we had been listening to Beethoven for some four hours, notwithstanding which they gained second prize of £5,600 and a UK Tour.
As in previous London competitions, I have reservations about the format and particularly the Beethoven finals, which are costly to attend and always over- subscribed - there appeared to be a risk that we were in for a series of Op. 59/2s, a favourite choice. In the event, it was played only once and helped to secure the first prize of £8000 plus a UK and European Tour for the Casals Quartet of Spain, who had not figured in my personal ratings (it must never be forgotten that in this competition, as with many others, the marking is cumulative through all the stages, and I had not heard them before the finals). I was interested to read in the programme book that there has to be a detailed marking scheme with no discussion or disagreement in the jury room, so as to avoid undue influence by strong personalities.
The final session lasted some 4½ hours, and for listeners did not make for a good concert. By the end it was hard to enter fully into the mood of Beethoven's heavenly-long Heiliger Dankgesang from Op. 132 played, for the second time that afternoon, by the Romanian Contempo Quartet who had begun in a style too legato for my taste, with the parts insufficiently differentiated. However, they improved as they continued, and were more relaxed by the time that they (and we!) reached the Allegro appassionato home straight, winning themselves the Third Prize (£4000 and a UK tour) plus the Audience Prize of £1000.
I had preferred the earlier performance of Op. 132 by the Quatuor Psophos, one of several French contenders, who gained my attention with their non-vibrato commencement, and held it with their meticulous attention to clarifying the texture throughout, securing my own Audience Prize vote and, far more importantly, the £2,800 fourth prize. I hope they will return to London and that readers will seek out the numerous scheduled performances by the first, second and third prizewinners in many parts of the UK - details from firstname.lastname@example.org and the London International String Quartet Competition's website http://lsqf.com/