Monday, August 26, 2019

BISQC, day 1

Here I am back at the Banff International String Quartet Competition, at the Banff Arts Centre up in the Canadian Rockies. I was here at the last session three years ago, and had a wonderfully string quartetty of a time. So since I couldn't attend Tolkien in Birmingham, or several other things, I was determined to get back to this.

And everything is pretty much as I remembered it. The long bus ride up from the Calgary airport, the facilities including the fantastically good food, the program. Even two of the ten participating quartets are the same. There have been some small alterations to the program schedule, which won't turn up until later. And, as promised last time, our housing has been entirely refurbished. It used to be 1960s college dormitory, now it's postmodern business hotel. Mostly an improvement, though it takes some ingenuity to figure out where some of the light switches are.

Today, the first of the competition, featured two concerts with a total of four of the competing quartets (the other six are tomorrow) playing two works each: a Haydn quartet and a 20th century quartet, each of the performers' choice (with some restrictions). The modern quartets were three Bartoks and a Ligeti. Wouldn't you know: last time we had ten Bartok quartets, this time, all told, seven. It's like a plague, slowly receding.

What struck me about these performances was how much, in three of the four cases, each performing group's individual style was evident across both works, despite the vast difference between Haydn and the modern Hungarians. The Callisto Quartet (US), for instance, played a Haydn Op. 77/1 that was crisp and clear, each voice highly differentiated, with witty phrasing in a true Haydn style. Despite this, it was substantive, not light-weight, with some real vehemence in the trio and finale. So imagine my surprise when they applied the same crisp clarity of phrasing and voicing to Ligeti's First, even managing to be witty on occasion. It made this load of modernist hackwork actually sound almost interesting. A first-rate job.

The Quatuor Elmire (France), by contrast, played in a blended style more traditional in string quartet work, with a tangy effect owing to the difference in sonorities of the participating instruments. The emphasis in their Haydn Op. 76/5 was on the beauty of the music. Their Bartok Second tried for the same effect by being primarily slow and quiet, giving off an inchoate sense of deep profundity, and without any of the grittiness typical of the work. The scherzo, which is anything but slow and quiet, was dry and rigid, but plenty of push kept it from being dull.

The Omer Quartet (US), one of the returning ensembles (and one which I've heard a couple times in the interim), applied a light, quaint Baroque style to their Haydn Op. 20/2, giving it a cool and affectless air, though with occasional startling (in context) displays of emotion. Their Bartok Third was also cool and unaffected, with strong emphasis on Bartok's weird sounds: glissandi, metallic on-the-bridge playing, and so forth. The coda featured a sudden outburst of intensity, as if they really cared.

But the Ulysses Quartet (US, with one Canadian member), the other returning ensemble (and the most striking in appearance: three women in dazzling matching electric red long dresses, plus one man in a plain suit who looked like their chauffeur), did something different. Their Haydn Op. 33/1 was light and blended, sweeter in tone than the Elmire's, affecting in the Andante, and with a zippingly fast finale. But did they let this affect their Bartok Fifth? Not a chance. The entire thing sounded like Elmire's dry and rigid scherzo, but by gum the combination of jerking Eastern European folk dance rhythms and an even more vivid emphasis on bizarre sounds than the Omer led to the most authentically Bartokian sound I've heard here yet. The hurdy-gurdy episode in the finale was outstandingly peculiar. I have to call this one the winner in the day's Bartok competition.

More tomorrow ...

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