Banff, ALTA. – The Romantic round is over at the Banff International String Quartet Competition. Each of 10 contenders played their choice of quartets by composers such as Mendelssohn, Ravel, Debussy, Dvořák and Brahms. The results, I would say, were generally helpful for all 10 groups. The few that I’ve enjoyed the most so far added to my favourable impression.
The Viano Quartet played Debussy’s only string quartet, with Hao Zhou on first violin. They displayed their control of dynamic subtlety and the ethereal features of impressionistic writing. The piece also showed how in synch the two violinists (Lucy Wang was second violin) are when in the foreground together, as well as the soloistic talent of both cellist Tate Zawadiuk and especially violist Aiden Kane, particularly in the Andantino third movement, marked doucement expressif. The whole group showed its understanding of “sweetly expressive” brilliantly, creating what I felt were the most beautiful musical moments of the whole round. Pizzicato in the second movement was consistently crisp and bright as well.
Several groups made their mark in ways I didn’t feel they had with their first two pieces in the recital round. The Frenchmen of the Quatuor Agate, wearing very informal, identical russet-coloured shirts and black pants, demonstrated that Debussy is their kind of music as well. They captured the dreaminess of the style hypnotically, but also showed they could really generate propulsive energy when required.
The Merman Quartet continued to make a strong impression with their performance of Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in F minor, Op. 80 on Wednesday evening. The opening Allegro Vivace Assai had excellent moments of Sturm und Drang emotion contrasted with mellow lyrical lines that conveyed the wispy element of the Romantic sensibility.
And the Quatuor Elmire, also from France, produced an strikingly aggressive opening to the same Mendelssohn quartet, demonstrating panache in the czardas-flavoured lines of the first movement. They also exuded serious musical force in choral moments, when everyone contributed to a single full-quartet sound.
So far, repertoire choices have seemed reasonable, if a little too Bartók-inclined. A competition no doubt calls for a bit of showing off. In the first round, the Eliot Quartet (from Germany and Russia) made an odd choice for the Haydn selection. The C Major, Op. 20, No. 2, one of the six “Sun” quartets, is as good a representation of a relentlessly overcast day as you could find. No matter how well it was played, the effect was dreary. And then they capped their first round with the murky Szymanowski String Quartet No. 2, Op. 56, which goes from tranquil (although dull would be closer to the truth) to depressive over its 18 minutes. Let’s just say the piece didn’t offer much emotional range for the quartet to sink their performance chops into.
In the Romantic round, the American Omer Quartet chose Brahms’s String Quartet No. 3 in B flat major, Op. 67. This quartet, to my taste, comes across as admirably well-constructed and harmonically complex but tedious. The Omers put everything they had into it, but the piece screamed Romantic rather in the way Goethe’s Werther is Romantic – insular and obsessive, and not much interested in amusing or stimulating others.
The audience was treated Thursday evening (last night) to a concert by the last BISQC winners, the Rolston Quartet, joined by the 2018 Honens Piano Competition winner Nicolas Namoradze and two BISQC jurors, cellist Adrian Fung, a founding member of the Afiara Quartet, and violist Nobuko Imai, a former member of the Vermeer Quartet.
On Friday (today), we hear the new Canadian piece by Matthew Whittall, his second venture into string quartet writing, played by all 10 ensembles. This is always a special experience. Where else can you hear 10 live interpretations of the same short piece in one morning?
Remember, BISQC is live-streamed on the Violin Channel at theviolinchannel.com