In Banff, a Schubert challenge produces three finalists

CanadaCanada BISQC 2019 [3] – various composers: Agate, Callisto, Eliot, Elmire, Marmen, Omer, Ruisi, Vera, Viano, and Ulysses String Quartets. Eric Harvie Theatre, Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, Banff, Canada. 31.8.2019. (LV)

The Eliot Quartett in the Schubertplus round at Banff (c) Don Lee

AdèsThe Four Quarters Op.28
Lera AuerbachSonnet for String Quartet No.3, Si vis pacem, para bellum
Bartók – String Quartet No.6, Mesto – Burletta
Beethoven – String Quartet Op.95, Larghetto espressivo – Allegretto agitato – Allegroll
DutilleuxAinsi la nuit
Pavel Haas – String Quartet No.2, Landscape
Haydn – String Quartet Op.54 No.2, Adagio
KurtágAus der Ferne III
Prokofiev – String Quartet Op.92, Adagio. Allegro
Purcell – Three Fantasias in Four Parts
Ravel – String Quartet, Vif et agité
Rihm – String Quartet No.2, Adagio
Schnittke – String Quartet No.3, Andante
Schubert – String Quartets D.810, Allegro; D.887, Allegro molto moderato
Schumann – String Quartet Op.41, Adagio
Sciarrino – String Quartet No.7
Shostakovich – String Quartet Op.118: Adagio
Stravinsky – Three Pieces for String Quartet
Webern – Six Bagatelles Op.9

On Saturday, the final round of the triennial Banff International String Quartet Competition lasted from mid-morning until 9.30pm. In the round called Schubertplus, each of the ten competing quartets devised programs of no more than 30 minutes, using the first movement from one of Schubert’s last three quartets plus additional repertoire of the musicians’ choosing. Given the staggering amount of $300,000 in cash and prizes, the final hours turned into classical music’s version of running with the bulls in Pamplona: the Choosing of the Quartets.

Surprisingly, none of the artists chose Schubert’s beloved but deceptively difficult Rosamunde Quartet — six went for D.810 in D minor, Death and the Maiden, and the others for D.887 in G major. They did make imaginative choices for the additional repertoire that not only reflected their own sense of identity, but perhaps gave a nod to works that might particularly impress the jury. The earliest music was by Henry Purcell, and the newest by Lera Auerbach and Thomas Adès. Unlike the 2016 Competition, however, when the Dover Quartet took all the individual prizes on their way to a stunning sweep, there were no clear winners.

The Marmen Quartet devised the most imaginative use of additional repertoire, using the mewings, mouse trails, and wails of Salvatore Sciarrino’s Seventh Quartet, which led without pause into a confounding but intriguing Allegro molto moderato from Schubert’s Quartet D.887. They played with stunning clarity and extreme speeds — the latter might have been slightly precious but generated considerable power. The effect was as if the players had discovered a deconstructed score and reassembled it as they went on. Choosing to begin with the 9-minute Sciarrino also meant there was time to take the repeat in the Schubert, which gave it the large dimensions it deserves.

Similarly imaginative – but in the reverse direction – was the Vera Quartet who started with a swiftly lyrical, flowing performance of the Allegro from D.810. They followed it with the Andante of Schnittke’s Third Quartet — a Dali-esque grand voyage in which the music seemed to physically melt at times — the sixth section of Lera Auerbach’s Third Sonnet, and the last movement of Beethoven’s Quartet Op.95, which after the slow introduction went wonderfully fast and then faster.

The Eliot Quartett’s Schubert D.810 was perhaps the most deeply satisfying sequence of the day. After a simple introduction, with warm, nuance, and lovely phrasing from the first violin, the Eliots turned in real emotional consequences. In the last two movements of Prokofiev’s Second Quartet — a perfect complement to the Schubert, the Adagio in particular — featured gorgeous intonation and a gentle lyricism.

Other notable choices included all of Thomas Adès’s engrossing Four Quarters Op.28 from the Viano Quartet, followed by a relatively cautious Schubert D.887. The Callisto players gave one-quarter of the Adès — the Serenade: Morning Dew — after their Schubert, a beautifully blended D.810.

The Quatuor Agate also began with D.810 — lean, light, seductive, and free of unnecessary rhetorical devices — before a reserved reading of the impassioned flights of Central European fancy that is the Adagio from Haydn’s Quartet Op.54 No.2. They finished the Adagio from Rihm’s Second Quartet, filled with chirps, crunches, and other extraneous noises, occasionally interrupted by melodic sighs.

Before a naturally flowing Schubert D.887, the Omer Quartet began with an exquisite reading of Webern’s Six Bagatelles, an eloquent Adagio from Schumann’s First Quartet, the latter simply paced and adorned with intimate trills, an affectionate reflection on the Schubert. They finished with György Kurtág’s three-minute Aus der Ferne III that might have been a descendant of the Webern.

The day’s jousting finished with the Quatuor Elmire in D.810 and Dutilleux’s Ainsi le nuit, a descendant not only of Webern but of Beethoven and Bartók as well. When the Elmire chose the Dutilleux months ago, they could not have known that cellist Joel Krosnick would be in the audience. Dutilleux’s opus had been commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation for Krosnick and the Juilliard Quartet, who gave its U.S. premiere in 1978, and then championed it in Europe.

Just after midnight, the three finalists were announced at the Banff Centre’s MacLab Bistro, and the choices were cheered by the crowd of aficionados: the Callisto, Viano, and Marmen Quartets. The final battle was yet to come.

Laurence Vittes

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