The 7th Banff International String Quartet Competitionby David Stewart
/ November 1, 2001
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 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
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
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.
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
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
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