Sunshine Reigns in the Opening Round at Banff International String Quartet Competition

CanadaCanada BISQC 2019 [1] – Bartók, Haydn, Ligeti, and Szymanowski: Agate, Eliot, Elmire, Marmen, Ruisi, Vera, Viano, and Ulysses String Quartets. Eric Harvie Theatre, Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, Banff, Canada. 26-27.8.2019. (LV)

The ten competing quartets of the 2019 BISQC (c) Don Lee

Bartók – String Quartets 2, 3, 4, and 5
Haydn – String Quartets Op.20 Nos. 2 and 5, Op.33 No.1, Op.50 No.1, Op.76 Nos. 1 and 5, Op.77 No.1
Ligeti – String Quartet No.1, Metamorphoses nocturnes
Szymanowski – String Quartet No.2

After 30 years, the newest edition of the Banff International String Quartet Competition (BISQC) — one of the most prestigious competitions in the world — continues to celebrate the art of chamber music generally, and the string quartet in particular.

Over the course of a week, ten of the world’s best young ensembles are vying for over $300,000 in cash and prizes to support their emerging careers, in the form of concert tours in North America and Europe, recordings, and artistic collaborations. Even the seven quartets not advancing to the final rounds will receive career development grants. And new and highly significant this year is a collaboration with Southern Methodist University’s Meadows Schools of the Arts (in Dallas, Texas): The Peak Fellowship Ensemble-In-Residence Prize, a two-year paid residency worth $160,000 offered to the First Place Laureates.

Hoping to follow in the footsteps of past winners — the St. Lawrence, Miró, Daedalus, Jupiter, TinAlley, Cecilia, Dover, and Rolston String Quartets — an entirely new flock finished the opening ‘Recital’ round of the competition Tuesday night, when a Haydn quartet of choice was paired with a quartet written after 1905, also of their choice, before moving on to the second, ‘Romantic’ round. Of the eight groups I heard, the quality and individuality were consistently impressive — and occasionally astounding.

While the jurors were inputting their secret votes into the Optimal Jury Scoring System developed by Moses Renert and Ernst Enns, my scorecard gave highest marks in Haydn to the Ulysses, Vera, Viano, Marmen and Agate Quartets, each of whom brought a unique approach.

In Op.33 No.1, the Ulysses Quartet (Canada/USA/Taiwan) demonstrated superb narrative skills, beautiful arcs of phrasing and a perfect feel for the dimensions of classical style. They captured perfectly the spirit of the quirky theme which Haydn used for variations in the Andante. Their Bartók Fifth was similarly impressive, although what had been perfectly scaled for Haydn seemed slightly underpowered; still, their night music in the opening Allegro was haunting, the Adagio molto ended with an immaculate cello glissando, and they hit a great stride in the Finale.

In Op.76 No.1 the Vera Quartet (Spain/USA) subjected Haydn to a bold, forthright, frisky and occasionally flirty attitude and the score responded in kind. In place of the Menuetto‘s usual charm, the foursome substituted brilliant virtuosity, along with the first violinist doing all sorts of sexy things in the Trio and found a sublime tone for the finale’s major key transformation. They ended with a simple little farewell that resulted in the round’s biggest applause. After rotating first violinists, their Bartók Third had full sound, but compared to their kaleidoscopic Haydn was a bit subdued.

In Op.77 No.1, the Viano Quartet (Canada/USA) took full advantage of first violinist Hao Zhou, recently crowned winner of the Concours Musical International de Montréal, to give a comprehensive, full-bodied, optimistic, surge, that presented the score as the pinnacle of Haydn’s art. They played the Menuetto with ferocious abandon, reveled in the sheer physical delights of the Trio, and finished with a Finale that defined flashing virtuosity. After rotating their first violinists, their Bartók Fourth was glamorous, intoxicated by the full panoply of sound, color and dynamics, and their Prestissimo was riveting, tigerish and precise.

In Op.50 No.1 the Marmen Quartet (UK/Sweden) were stylish and engaged, with phrasing sculpted in three dimensions. At time, the first violinist was a bit affected (but always affecting) and the cellist spoke volumes, even in pianissimos. They gave a lovely lyrical lilt to the Adagio non lento and fully explored its brilliant dimensions; even more than usual, it was a movement I was sorry to see end. Taking nothing for granted, the Marmen set up the Menuetto‘s trio perfectly. In the Finale, they almost brought off a death-defying speed, the first violinist adding a nice little cadenza towards the end before finishing with a ‘I thought it was finished’ joke that actually worked — catching the audience off guard and evoking laughter, just as Haydn intended. In Ligeti’s endlessly inventive First Quartet — rich in fabulous colors, and one of his last works before leaving Hungary and moving into his avant-garde phase — the group were exhilarating, wild, volcanic, and paid full attention to the cartoonish aspects, which even outdid Haydn in the joke department.

In Op.76 No.5, the Quatuor Agate (France) opened with an Allegretto that was a little fast but constantly delighted the ear with rethought phrasings, splendid riffs and for once, a coda that was actually exhilaratingly fast. They gave full scope to their romantic imagination in the Largo, which — after a five-minute break to allow the cellist to deal with a slipping peg — returned warmer than before and very moving. They gave the Menuetto‘s trio a spooky cast, before setting up the madcap Finale with a few slightly hesitant introductory bars. In Bartók’s Third, the players gave their all — a reading that was haunted, intricate, and precisely timed without being machined, and a good choice if you couldn’t have the Ligeti again.

The dry acoustics of Eric Harvie Hall also played a key role, testing Donald Tovey’s observation that ‘chamber music requires no more than the number of players for whom individual parts are written; and every note written is intended to be heard’. The room throws a cruel spotlight on any surface imperfections, but simultaneously embraces full-house audiences, many of whom had paid thousands of dollars for a week’s package of concerts, lectures and other events, hotel rooms adjacent to the hall, breakfasts and lunches, and of course, access to magnificent Banff scenery. The competition began on an exceptionally beautiful, sunshine-filled week, complementing the sunshine from the young players.

Laurence Vittes

1 thought on “Sunshine Reigns in the Opening Round at Banff International String Quartet Competition”

  1. Thank You for this generous and illuminating review. You have captured the spirit and substance of the Competition beautifully. I look forward to more to come.


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