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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 7, No. 3

The 7th Banff International String Quartet Competition

by David Stewart / November 1, 2001

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The quartets at the competition came from six countries: Daedalus, Delancy and Enso from the USA; Herold and Penguin from the Czech Republic; Johannes and Satie from France; Diabelli from Canada; Kuss from Germany; and Excelsior from Japan.

The ten quartets were chosen by a special jury who had listened to code-numbered tapes submitted by over thirty applicants from several countries. The survivors who came to Banff were of a remarkably high standard, so the competition jury had an even more difficult task than usual in picking the winner.

The first four days were devoted to the Classical, Romantic, and 20th Century repertoires and the “imposed piece” by a Canadian composer, commissioned by the CBC. This year there was a special new prize for the best performance of a Beethoven quartet during the Classic or Romantic sessions, honoring the venerable Zoltán Szekély, once of the Hungarian Quartet, who taught for many years at Banff and now lives at the Centre in retirement. However, this involved some complications: in order for all contestants to play one Beethoven quartet, half the quartets played during those two days had to be from either Beethoven’s six “classical” works of Opus 18, or the five of his “middle period”. That limited the choice of works by other composers for both players and listeners.

Partially to compensate for that, the program for the last two days was changed. All quartets participated in a full program on the second to the last day restricted to Haydn or Mozart. This pleased the audience, but then the jury had the invidious task of electing only four finalists and eliminating the other six.

Some Personal Highlights

Taking the quartets in alphabetical order, the performances that impressed me most were:

  • Diabelli (Canada) - For a sensitive account of Mozart’s sometimes sprightly but inherently sad KV 421 in D minor, which ends with a cry of sheer despair in the final coda and for their courage in tackling R. Murray Schafer’s Quartet No. 3.
  • Herold (Czech Republic) - The only group to tackle Beethoven’s Op. 18 No. 6, with its “La Malinconia” movement presaging the great late quartets. And on day two a fine performance of Dvorák’s “American” Op. 96, played with true Czech flavor.
  • Kuss (Germany) - Off to a good start the first day with an exquisitely delicate Beethoven Op. 18 No. 2; on day two an equally fine account of Schumann’s Op. 41 No. 3, and on the second to the last day, Mozart’s difficult “cello” Quartet, KV 589. The Kuss quartet well deserved being finalists.
  • Penguin (Czech Republic) -- The humorists of the competition, -- on each appearance a penguin doll was placed ceremoniously by the first violinist’s music stand. Their rollicking performance of Haydn’s “Rider” Quartet, Op. 74 No. 3, left toes tapping for the rest of the afternoon.
  • Quatuor Satie (France) -- As expected, a superb performance of the Ravel Quartet in F; their other contributions were less convincing. They too were chosen as finalists.

The Finals

There were two highlights of the evening: Quatuor Satie’s workmanlike performance of the very difficult Schubert G Major Quartet, D. 887 (the only Schubert work in the whole competition); and the Kuss Quartet’s stellar performance of the Brahms B-flat Major, Op. 67. The last two movements are almost a mini-concerto for the viola, beautifully played by Julia Mai.

Many listeners were surprised to find the Delancy and Daedalus quartets among the finalists. Yet, in the end the latter group placed first overall and were also awarded the prizes for the imposed piece (by John Estacio) and for the Beethoven quartet.

The Recurring Problem

I have now experienced five Banff competitions and have only once fully agreed with the jury’s final decision. That was in 1992, when the St. Lawrence, Ying, Manderling and Amati quartets were the finalists and ranked in that order. The then very young St. Lawrence players astonished everyone by their mature and dramatic interpretation of Beethoven’s Op. 131, which got them a standing ovation led by the jurors themselves.

In other years the verdicts have led to much grumbling, and at least once to open protests from the audience.

Rightly anticipating dissatisfaction again this time, the jury’s chairman, Andrew Dawes, explained in great detail how decisions were made in picking the finalists and in their ranking. Few in the audience were fully convinced.

Decisions can be made by heads or by hearts. The jurors are accomplished musicians themselves, and deduct marks for technical errors in intonation or bowing, or imprecise coordination between the four players. Most listeners do not notice such things. They assess the performance by the emotional effect it makes on them--whether it has stirred them by its beauty, sadness, joy, or wit.

It seems almost impossible to bridge the gap between head and heart. One suggestion calls for a separate “audience vote” that carries its own rewards. But it would really mean a double competition with, very possibly, no real winners. And how would the winners share the limited rewards in the end?

Another idea is to evolve a different kind of jury, made up of both professionals and experienced amateur players or other chamber music devotees. But this might just lead to long arguments and delayed decisions until even the anxious contestants have trudged wearily off to bed.

Perhaps wiser heads can solve the dilemma.

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