At Banff, the temperature rises with a striking quartet from Matthew Whittall

CanadaCanada BISQC 2019 [2] – Brahms, Debussy, Dvořák, Mendelssohn, Ravel, and Matthew Whittall: Agate, Callisto, Eliot, Elmire, Marmen, Omer, Ruisi, Vera, Viano, and Ulysses String Quartets. Eric Harvie Theatre, Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, Banff, Canada. 28-30.8.2019. (LV)

The Marmen Quartet at Banff (c) Don Lee

Brahms – String Quartet Op.67
Debussy – String Quartet Op.103
Dvořák – String Quartet Op.105
Mendelssohn – String Quartets Op.13 and Op.80
Ravel – String Quartet
Matthew Whittall – String Quartet No.2, Bright Ferment

Ten young string quartets seeking stardom, seven jurors who know what stardom is all about, and a highly engaged, knowledgeable audience took a collective breath after the Romantic Round of the Banff International String Quartet Competition.

The quartets had shown their wares in the opening Recital Round, in which five stood out and Haydn had fairly vanquished his competitors: Bartók, Ligeti and Szymanowski. Now the focus turned to Debussy, Ravel, Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Dvořák. The urgency of the playing ratcheted up, as the shining prize of $300,000 began to seem a possibility rather than a dream, and applause and cheers came faster and more furiously.

Most startling was the Marmen Quartet’s ferocious, fiery reading of Mendelssohn’s late Quartet in C minor, completed two months before his death in November 1847. Written as an homage to his beloved sister Fanny who had earlier that year, the quartet bears the powerful stamp of Beethoven, including a striking echo of the recitative from his Quartet Op.132.

As they had in Haydn and Ligeti, the Marmen players showed a priceless ability to identify those brief moments of beauty in Mendelssohn’s tension-filled landscape. They set up key pivot points with superb timing — as in the Allegro assai’s central section — found a natural speed for the Adagio and fashioned a compelling narrative arc for the Finale.

While the most purely idiomatic performance was the Quatuor Agate’s Debussy — a transparent reading of yearning fantasy that showed their French lineage — the most startling was the Callisto Quartet’s no-holds-barred Dvořák Op.105. A force to be reckoned with, the Americans reinterpreted conventional notions of how the score should go, throwing off all shackles of the composer’s debt to Brahms and focusing on the rustic accents. They made interesting choices in phrasing, used portamento to stunning, if occasionally outlandish, effect and captured the exhilarating energy — perhaps at the expense of the score’s romantic soul.

On Friday morning, for a complete change of pace, each of the ten quartets in turn played Matthew Whittall’s 10-minute Bright Ferment, commissioned by the Banff Centre, the CBC, and the New York-based Americas Society. The result was a cumulative 90-minute tour de force, interrupted only by stagehands changing the chairs, piano benches and music stands. Working on their own with no coaching challenged the players to find shape and direction.

Whittall, who has written for the Helsinki Philharmonic, Finnish Radio Symphony, and Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra (a concerto for Angela Hewitt), delivered a fast-moving kaleidoscope that began with minimalist murmurings and ended with a flurry of fiendishly difficult, ghostly harmonics. In between there were pizzicato waterfalls, cat-and-mouse games, lyrical longings, and major instrumental riffs — plus hints of tango, Mussorgsky’s Picture at an Exhibition, Gershwin’s Summertime, and Debussy’s Cello Sonata .

After the Omer Quartet had bravely laid out the parameters with force and clarity, their equally courageous colleagues delivered surprisingly different and often entirely individual explorations, which mirrored much of their previous work in mainstream repertoire. The Callisto delivered phalanxes of sound and strategic shaping. The Ruisi Quartet — after a relatively subdued, carefully sculpted opening — took a more conversational tone, with their cellist offering a more hallucinogenic take on his key glissandi. The Ulysses Quartet — who were greeted with cheers for the women’s dazzling gowns — applied controlled, sleek energy to their navigation, and found deep pools of colors in the violin and viola solos. The Quatuor Agate was more subdued, featured the jazziest of the evening’s cello pizzicatos, and found magic even in the silence after the concluding harmonics.

After intermission, the Viano Quartet’s sheer physical force and sweep — with Montréal Concours winner Hao Zhou a huge plus as second violin — provided the most organic reading while revealing unexpected emotional overtones. They also found ways to create resonance in the dry Eric Harvie Hall acoustics by delaying their release points on phrase endings. The Marmen foursome began with swift, incisive 16th notes, created a compelling narrative studded with gorgeous solos, and managed the journey into the final harmonics as if they had been playing the score for years.

The Vera Quartet’s vivid sense of dialogue, superb interplay, and imaginatively lean slides were let down only by an uneventful ending. The Quatuor Elmire’s dynamic energy, and identification with the bleak side of Whittall’s invention, led to an ending of almost perfect evanescence. The sexiest violin solos came from the Eliot Quartet, whose dramatic sense of anticipation incongruously summoned up the finale of Brahms’s First Symphony when the pizzicatos lead to the big brass fanfare. After they arrived at the final bars with a wonderful crescendo, the audience went wild, seemingly eager to hear a few more versions, before the composer was called to the stage for sustained applause.

Laurence Vittes

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