Tuesday, August 27, 2019

BISQC, day 2

Today was a real marathon day at the Banff string quartet competition. To fit two works (a Haydn and a 20C) by each of the six remaining competing ensembles into one day required three concerts of two hours each. We were in the concert hall a total of 6 hours between 10:30 AM (yes, the first concert was in the morning) and 9:30 PM, with time in between to trudge over to the dining hall for meals, but not much more than that. Possibly due to not having had enough sleep last night, I was fatigued by the end of this to an extent I haven't felt at BISQC before. Or maybe it was just too much Bartok.

Let's just run down the six groups:

The Vera Quartet (Spain/US) played Haydn's Op. 76/1 with a crisp and lively rhythm and rich four-part harmonies almost 19C in flavor. That the first violin was a little squeaky was a minor flaw. Their Bartok Third, I'm pleased to say, was the most revelatory Bartok of the whole two-day set, the kind of performance I came here to hear. Without stinting in the slightest on the raw toughness of the work, they made Bartok's legendarily hardest quartet into jolly fun to listen to. Blazing speed too.

The Viano Quartet (Canada/US) gave a fuller and more down-to-earth version of Haydn's Op. 77/1 than the Callisto did yesterday, so despite having less flair it was, I think, a more solid performance. It was notable also for perfectly matching sonorities in the upper strings, with only the cello standing out. Their Bartok Fourth was no less raw and tough than the Vera's Third, but the outer movements were just slashing, harsh and unpleasant. At least the two scherzi (one muted, one pizzicato) were exotic and colorful.

The Eliot Quartet (Germany, with Canadian and Russian members) did Haydn's Op. 20/2. It turns out that a lot of the Baroque flavor I detected in the Omer's performance yesterday is inherent in the music. Still, this was a more modern performance, with the fullness of the Viano, the even sonority of the Vera, and also the squeaky first violin of the Vera. For a modern work, the Eliot offered the Second Quartet of Karol Szymanowski, a work I didn't know. It opens in S's best "Debussy in Poland" style, interrupted by Janacek shivers and later Bartok slides and slashes. I could live without this piece, but it was unquestionably a fine performance.

The Ruisi Quartet (UK) played both Haydn's Op. 20/5 and Bartok's Second in the most dark, mysterious, and melancholic emotional manner possible. It was never frantic, not even in Bartok's scherzo, and if you know that scherzo, you'd claim that restraint to be impossible. But they did it. It was a remarkable tour-de-force, though I'm not sure to what end. Of all the quartets competing, this is the one I'm most curious as to what they'll do next. Actually, what they're doing next is Mendelssohn's Op. 13, and if they pour a sea of melancholy all over that, it'll be a surfeit for the ages.

The Marmen Quartet (UK) gave a lively and energetic run through Haydn's Op. 50/1. The sound was stringy, in the sense of giving an awareness of the instruments as physical objects. Then we had Ligeti's First. Again. The Callisto had done this yesterday, and did a wonderfully effective presentation of this piece of Eurotrash. The Marmen, though, were more harsh, even coarse and brutal, with startlingly precise coordination, but to what artistic end? A lot of sound and fury, signifying, well, you know.

Lastly, the Quatuor Agate played the same Haydn, Op. 76/5, that the other four-man French group, the Elmire, did yesterday. Way to differentiate yourself, guys. It was slightly different in preferring to express character and atmosphere rather than beauty. The Largo was rather spooky, but the main difference was that the cellist's string broke during the middle of the Largo, leading to a long pause while they all went offstage to fix it and retune. And their Bartok Third seemed weirdly hesitant, as if the players were afraid of all the slashing noises they were making. Maybe they expected another string to break.

Romantic/19C repertoire tomorrow.

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