I'm awake at this odd hour, which is frankly not unusual for me, and the announcement is up, so I might as well chat about the three finalists of the string quartet competition. It turns out that what you need to do to be a finalist at BISQC, at least this year, is play the Ravel, because the three finalists are the groups that did that. I couldn't say I'm at all disappointed at the choice, but then I would hardly have been disappointed at any of them. But I do have preferences between them from their work so far.
Tesla Quartet: If there was one piece that really knocked my socks off this year, it was Tesla's Bartok Six. It was a thing of sheer beauty - and from a Bartok quartet? As I wrote in Tesla's guest book (one of the perks the festival provides for each entrant), "I didn't know the old boy had it in him." Their Haydn and Ravel were also solid performances, and I really admire their unique courage to buck the modernist trend and play the Italian Serenade and La oracion del torero for the ad lib round, as well as for playing them with such finesse.
Castalian Quartet: This was my pre-game favorite, from the video clips they had online. I liked the vividness of their sound, and that, rather than particularly outstanding individual performances, is what they've most contributed to this festival. Their style runs towards the serious. No jokes in their Haydn: it was dramatic, and excellently so. Their Bartok Six was completely different from Tesla's, but just as fresh and convincing. The other reason I rooted for this group was their choice of Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" if they made the finals. I didn't want to leave here without hearing that, my favorite of all quartets. And now I won't.
Rolston Quartet: The only all-Canadian competitor this year, founded here in Banff in fact, and could that have been a contributing factor? Because while I'd say they did the best of the three Ravels, they were the only competitor whose Haydn was maybe a little dull at times. Well, their choice was probably a matter of taste. When I praised the other group that did the Janacek Second, another attendee said he preferred the Rolston version, because he thought harsh and anguished was what that work needed. And I had to agree that, if that's what you wanted, theirs was the performance to go for.
This afternoon we'll hear the three, each in a different giant epic by Beethoven or Schubert, and then they'll be ranked, one-two-three.
As we say farewell to the other competitors, here are my personal awards:
Best Haydn: Berlin-Tokyo Quartet. Such an ideal embodiment of Haydn's wit! That's what we listen to Haydn for. The work was Op. 33/4.
Best Modern Round: Tesla Quartet for their Bartok.
Best Romantic Round: Verona Quartet, for a hauntingly dramatic Mendelssohn 44/2.
Best Ad-Lib: Ulysses Quartet, for really capturing the spirit of the Janacek Second.
Most Elegant Performances: Arpa Quartet. Elegance and beauty of performance don't get due respect. If instead of judging the competitors by their best performances, I judged them by their worst, Arpa would take my prize. Nothing they played was at all disappointing, and I can't say that about anyone else.
and a few non-musical awards:
Friendliest: Argus Quartet. Their violist, Diane Wade, actually came out and chatted with a few of us during one intermission, and I haven't seen anyone else do that.
Best-Dressed: Ulysses Quartet. Three women in matching (but not identical) gowns of striking elegance: one evening they were all in electric blue; the next, it was black with sequins. Plus one man in a nondescript grey suit. He looked like their driver.
And the consolation prize for Most Unfairly Interrupted by Cell Phones: Castalian Quartet. Twice I've heard phones going off during concerts, once during one of Haydn's most dramatic pauses. Both times were while Castalian was playing. I hoped the judges didn't hold that against them, and apparently not. I just hope it doesn't happen again today. Don't you mess with my Schubert!