Battle of the bands at the Banff International String Quartet Competition

CanadaCanada Banff International String Quartet Competition (BISQC) – 21st Century / Haydn and Romantic rounds: Abeo Quartet, Animato Kwartet, Balourdet Quartet, Dior Quartet, Isidore String Quartet, Karski Quartet, Opus13, Quatuor Agate, Terra String Quartet. Jenny Belzberg Theatre, Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, Banff. 29.8.-1.9.2022. (LV)

Quatuor Agate at the BISQC © Rita Taylor

Corentin Apparailly – ‘Athanor’ String Quartet
Derek Bermel – Intonations
Prach Boondiskulchok – Ritus
Brahms – String Quartets No.1 in C minor, No.2 in A minor, Op.51
Billy Childs – String Quartet No.2, ‘Awakening’
Debussy – String Quartet in G minor, Op.10
Pascal Dusapin – String Quartet No.5
Dvořák – String Quartet No.13 in G major, Op.106
Vivian Fung – String Quartet No.4, ‘Insects and Machines’
Haydn – String Quartets: No.2 in C major, Op.20; No.1 in B minor, Op.33; No.1 in C major, Op.74; No.1 in G major, No.2 in D minor, No.5 in D major, Op.76; No.1 in G major, Op.77
Kevin Lau – String Quartet No.3
Mendelssohn – String Quartet No.2 in A minor, Op.13
Ravel – String Quartet in F major
Schumann – String Quartet No.1 in A minor, Op.41
Andrea Tarrodi – String Quartet No.2, ‘Madárdal’

A talented profusion of young string quartets came tumbling out of the gate at the first running of the Banff International String Quartet Competition since 2019. The first round paired Haydn with a modern work, in each case one chosen by the quartet. The second round was also the quartet’s choice, in this case one work only by a Romantic composer.

The first round brought forth a wide variety of responses to some of Haydn’s finest quartets, exploring the music according to the composer’s minimal tempo, expressive and dynamic markings. The contemporary choices included four masterpieces: Corentin Apparailly’s ‘Athanor’ Quartet, Billy Childs’s ‘Awakening’ Quartet, Pascal Dusapin’s Quartet No.5 and Vivian Fung’s ‘Insects and Machines’. The musical results in the Romantic round were simply immense.

Some of the quartets breathed together to the rhythms of the music, while some were more loosely attuned to each other’s movements. Every concert was packed with an audience, many of whom would stay the whole week. Everyone was keeping score. Everyone had their favorites.

The Quatuor Agate’s Haydn Op.20 No.2 was in the top lot, yielding the warmth of the music’s riches to the Agate’s sophisticated phrasing and variety of bowings. They took it with slightly less speed than seemed to prevail among the other quartets in similar works, and they used the extra time to accommodate a more expressive narrative including occasional flashes of violin virtuosity. In the Adagio, they played with the solemnity of one of the composer’s Seven Last Words, and the unison passage was ferociously in tune. They caught echoes of future Haydn in the hurdy-gurdy drone and other devices in the Minuetto. This was Haydn of real stature, and the group brought home the finale with as much theatrical suspense and excitement as a Fuga can ignite.

The Dior Quartet gobbled up Haydn’s Op.74 No.1; they were smart, svelte, sophisticated and beautifully matched in tone, attitude and gesture. The Terra Quartet’s Op.77 No.1 was elegant and perfectly paced, the hushed opening of the Adagio near perfect. The Karski Quartet’s Op.76 No.1 was warm and gorgeous, and the violin solo in the Trio was superb. The Isidore String Quartet’s Op.20 No.2 was elegant, with a beautifully phrased cello solo in the hushed opening in the Adagio, while the Balourdet Quartet poured forth superb sounds with exhilarating hints of Romantic style and passion into the beauties of Op.76 No.5.

Opus13 at the BISQC © Rita Taylor

In the Romantic round, Opus13’s performance of the Brahms No.1 was profoundly expansive and lyrical. Their focus on each note created a three-dimensional space so intense that no one in the audience took a breath during the Romanze. In the Allegretto, an exquisite solo cello introduced the sad splendor of the love triangle between the violins and the viola.

The Abeo Quartet’s Mendelssohn Op.13 was also very fine, led by the first violinist’s integrity and purpose. With varied bow strokes and texture, her spectral tones in the fugal entries were a haunting tour de force in itself. Her spectacular opening recitative in the last movement, quoting Beethoven’s late Quartet Op.132, stretched the boundaries of the romantic soul, and she went even further in an exultant finale.

The last of the day’s Romantics was the Animato Kwartet’s Schumann No.1 in A minor, which was swept away in the relentless passion of their violist. Led by her inspired playing, the last movement was a whirlwind. The Dior Quartet’s Dvorak No.13 the next morning was enchanting, told with astonishing virtuosity by the first violin with huge command from the cello.

The newly renovated Jenny Belzberg Theatre is more resonant, and the sound is richer. The shared community experience is as inspiring and rejuvenating as ever. In nourishing the string quartet, the Competition is both providing its legacy and insuring its future.

It will be the ideal setting for Sunday’s epic clash when each of the three finalists will play one of Beethoven’s quartets.

Laurence Vittes

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