On Monday, we heard four of the competing string quartets. On Tuesday, the other six. Today, we heard all ten of them. That wasn't as burdensome as it sounds, for they were each playing just one work, not two, and that work was their choice of something from the generally agreeable Romantic repertoire. Tonight's concert was the first in the competition for which a lot of day-trippers showed up; I suspect that will increase as the weekend arrives.
BISQC defines the Romantic repertoire as running basically from Mendelssohn through Ravel and Sibelius. Three of the groups chose to play Ravel's sole quartet, so each of the day's three concerts began with that. (Deja vu; see: deja vu.) The best of the three was, I thought, the Rolston Quartet's. They seemed to make the most expressive use of the potentialities of the score. It was exciting, and a little aggressive. The Castalian Quartet played the brightest and lightest version of the three. Their version of Ravel's fantastic scherzo wasn't airy, but it was energetic. That left the Tesla Quartet, which offered a smoothly lyrical, relatively heavy interpretation, and also the one that sounded the most like Ravel, albeit not that much. That would be a continuing theme of the day: composers who didn't sound much like themselves.
Another three played works from Brahms' Op. 51. Quartet Arpa's Second was the only one that sounded much like Brahms. It had bite but was relatively emotional and rhapsodic. A very good performance. Quartet Berlin-Tokyo also played the Second, in a bright, steely sound quite unlike this composer's usual. I would describe this relatively low-energy performance as more ruminative than rhapsodic. The Ulysses Quartet gave the First, in a dramatic, incisive, colorful, occasionally even Brahmsian rendition. Their Allegretto intermezzo in particular had real charm.
Certainly best of the remaining four was the Verona Quartet in Mendelssohn's Op. 44/2. This work is in E minor, and it got a dark, dramatic, tense and exciting reading totally subverting the Mendelssohn stereotype. I also liked the Omer Quartet's performance of the Debussy Op. 10. This was bouncy, and dry, dry, dry, as a dry wine is dry, and even rough with a hint of sandpaper. It didn't sound remotely like Debussy, but in this case that's a good thing. The less Debussy sounds like Debussy, the more I like him.
The Argus Quartet in Sibelius' Op. 56 found a hint of the true Sibelius flavor in his light Vivace scherzo. They also amazed with a ferocious "gypsy music" style finale, a rendition that would probably have been a surprise to the composer. Unfortunately, other parts of the performance felt a little impassive. The best part of the Aeolus Quartet's Dvorak Op. 105 was its "bear dance" scherzo, heavy but lively. There were some other dramatic parts, but otherwise it tended to sprawl. Earlier I had been talking with someone about what happens if you fall asleep during the concert. "It's best if you nod off during Dvorak," I'd advised. "He doesn't have anything worth saying that he isn't still saying when you wake up five minutes later."
Many of what I thought were the best of today's performances were by groups I ranked relatively poorly in the previous round. It's good not to be a judge.