Notes from the 11th London International String Quartet Competition
Audience opinion once again differs from that of the judges
Arcadia, a remote area of Greece, is a metaphor for an idyllic place, a paradise, in British composer Thomas Adès’Arcadiana—the compulsory work, along with a Haydn Op. 64 or Op. 76 quartet, a Mozart quartet, and a post-1915 modern work, in the 11th London International String Quartet Competition. Adès was only 22 years old when he wrote Arcadiana for the Endellion String Quartet in 1994. This remarkably confident work turned out to be an early milestone in what has become a major compositional career. Recalling the genesis of Arcadiana in a lecture, Andrew Watkinson, violinist of the Endellion, said, “We asked Adès to write a piece that wasn’t so serious, something with short, highly characterized movements.” The result, he said, exceeded the Endellion’s expectations.
Every morning I enjoyed my own little Arcadia as I walked in April through Hyde Park to the Royal College of Music (RCM), where the preliminary rounds were held. Signs of spring were everywhere in the park: the profusion of daffodils, the chatter of the birds, and the grunts of an exercise group as their coach barked orders at them.
Perhaps because they’d been listening closely to Watkinson’s lecture the night before, the KNUA Quartet from Korea was the first ensemble of the week to offer a persuasive performance of the Adès. Even forgetting the fact that it was the youngest quartet at the competition, the KNUA’s playing was very accomplished. The Danish String Quartet showed it also had the measure of Arcadiana, with a particularly moving “O Albion” movement. The Danish also offered a very muscular performance of Haydn’s “Fifths” quartet.
Two German quartets, the Signum and the Amaryllis, showed promise, too, with an exciting Janá?ek “Intimate Letters” from the Signum and a refined Mozart “Prussian” quartet from the Amaryllis.
Another national double act, this time from France, was the Ardeo Quartet and the Quatuor Voce. The latter’s Haydn “Sunrise” showed some original ideas, particularly in the playful phrasing of the first violin. There was individual style also evidenced in the Ardeo’s Haydn Op. 76, No. 2, though not perhaps with the same degree of polish as the Voce. The third national coupling was of two British quartets, the Finzi and the Solstice. Highlights here included a neatly played, but perhaps too deliberate Haydn Op. 64, No. 4, from the Finzi and a convincing Bartók Third Quartet from the Solstice.
A Finnish quartet, the Kamus, was the only quartet that stood up when it played and the only quartet, besides the Finzi with Britten’s Third, to venture outside central Europe in its choice of 20th-century work, with Schnittke’s Third Quartet. The only American ensemble was the Jasper String Quartet, currently the graduate string quartet in residence at Yale University (they took the top prize at several competitions last year). The Jasper played a somewhat underpowered Haydn Op. 76, No. 5, a solid Adès, and a fine Mozart “Dissonance” quartet, in which the group effectively brought out the inner voices.
No Anglo-American quartet made it to the semifinals, though the pairs of French and German quartets did, along with the KNUA and the Danish.
It was a game of two halves in the all-Beethoven program of the semifinals: Op. 74 (Amaryllis, Signum), Op. 131 (KNUA, Voce), and Op. 127 (Ardeo, Danish). This programming handily allowed the audience to compare and contrast the interpretations of these three quartets. The Amaryllis sailed smoothly through the treacherous opening of the Op. 74, while the Signum was in better control of the work’s overall shape and found the right balance between the inner string melodies and the first violin scrambling at the end of the first movement. In Op. 131, the KNUA produced a rich sound, but couldn’t match the edge-of-the-chair approach of the Quatuor Voce. Finally, in Op. 127, the Danish, once again with an attention-grabbing, assertive manner, put the Ardeo’s more restrained version in the shade.
The final featured the Danish String Quartet with Brahms’ First Quartet, the Signum with Ravel and the Quatuor Voce in Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden.” All three quartets played at their highest level, but I found myself most drawn to the Signum’s sweetly played Ravel. I wasn’t alone: as has been the case for the last few competitions, the audience prize went to the third-place winner, the Signum Quartet. The first prize, and a slew of additional prizes besides, went to the Danish String Quartet, whose Brahms had very much suited their high-energy personality.
One hopes that all of these young quartets, not only the winners, are able to heed the thoughtful advice from the jury members in a panel session that followed the announcement of the semifinalists. I was particularly struck by ex-Takács Quartet violist Roger Tapping’s urging that quartets think about financial realities early on: “You may not be able to live exclusively on the music you love the most. Have a financial plan!” But it was the idealism of violinist and Lindsays founder Peter Cropper that really hit home: “The essence of the string quartet is to make each member of the quartet as big as you can; to build on their strengths and hide their weaknesses.”
String quartet playing is and always will be most successful as a collective enterprise.