BISQC: Three quartet finalists named in Banff

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The jurors have spoken for the penultimate time at 13th Banff International String Quartet Competition, and Sunday evening a new laureate will be sent on a rocket ship of a career boost. The First prize, which continues to grow with each iteration of the competition, is worth more than $200,000 when you figure in the $25,000 in cash, a two-year residency at Southern Methodist University ($160,000), a two-continent tour, a recording, and other career development opportunities. BISQC director Barry Shiffman says the Rolston Quartet, 2016 winners, enjoyed almost 100 engagements, with the help of the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, over the past three years.

Seven quartets received the disappointing news Saturday night after the jury deliberated for more than 90 minutes. One of several uniquely humane aspects of this competition, each received an exit interview meant to enrich their prospects before Shiffman made the announcement at the Banff Centre pub.

The three finalists, the Viano (Canada/U.S.), Marmen (U.K.) and Callisto (U.S.) Quartets – will play a late Beethoven quartet on Sunday afternoon, a round worth 25% towards the final tally, and at around 6 p.m. mountain time, the final order of finish will be announced, and the main and subsidiary prizes for the best Haydn ($3,000) and best performance of the Canadian commission ($3,000) will be known. The seven ensembles not playing the final will each receive a gig fee of $4,000, twice as much as the 2016 ensembles did.

Saturday’s cull followed the “Schubertplus” round, in which the 10 quartets could play one of three selected movements from one of three Schubert quartets, and any other music they chose to make up a 30-minute performance.

The Marmens took the ususual approach of playing all the repeats of the Allegro Molto Moderato movement from the Quartet No. 15 in G Major, a 22-minute Schubertian immersion in delicacy and high seriousness. And what they played to segue immediately into the Schubert was definitely the most studiously playful and unconventional bit of string quartet repertoire heard all week – the seven-minute and 15-second String Quartet No. 7 by Salvatore Sciarrino. Have a listen around the 2:04 mark.

This round had an eclectic selection of repertoire beyond the required Schubert. Viano played all four movements of The Four Quarters Op. 28 by Thomas Adès, revealing once again their superior control of dynamics, among other talents.

Callisto’s program began with the Allegro movement of “Death and the Maiden,” which I thought they began somewhat viscously. (Same link second group; compare it to Vera’s interpretation later in this same session.) Callisto also included the second movement of Adès’s Four Quarters, a plucky, perhaps ironic, take on the notion of a serenade.

There were several other interesting choices on the “plus” side of this Schubertplus round. Quatuor Agate juxtaposed the Adagio from Haydn’s String Quartet in C Major with a wholly different idea of adagio from Wolfgang Rihm’s very early String Quartet No. 2. This work is an intense display of what many in the audience, I suspect, would object to calling music, but the young French ensemble went at it with an anarchic energy that made the piece sound like more than an angry release of emotional frustration and conflict. I’ve heard tedious Rihm; this performance was positively exciting in comparison.

Here’s what the finalists play this afternoon (Sept 1, 2019):

  • Callisto Quartet: Beethoven Quartet No. 8 in E minor, Op. 59 No. 2
  • Marmen Quartet: 
Beethoven Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 131
  • Viano Quartet:
 Beethoven Quartet No. 9 in C Major, Op. 59 No. 3

You can hear the end of BISQC at www.theviolinchannel.com. All performances are archived at https://www.facebook.com/pg/BanffCentre/videos/?ref=page_internal

N.B. The Rolston String Quartet played Beethoven’s String Op. 59, No. 2 in their final three years ago.

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About Author

Bill Rankin is an Edmonton-based freelance writer. He is the Canadian correspondent for the American Record Guide and regular contributor to Opera Canada. He has also written features for La Scena Musicale, and contributed stories and reviews to the Globe and Mail, Gramophone, and other publications. He was staff classical music writer for the Edmonton Journal in the early '80s.

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