Aeolus Quartet delivers divine Dvorák; Tesla's Ravel simply perfect in day three of Banff competition

Wednesday at the Banff International String Quartet Competition (BISQC) was a long haul of repetition, three Ravel quartets and three Brahms quartets. It was also a time for individual standout repertoire choices and performances — Dvorák A-flat quartet and Sibelius ‘voces intimae’ quartet.

But regardless of who chose what to present, a fact remained by day’s end: so many fine performances in Wednesday’s Romantic/Nationalistic round at BISQC made it even more difficult to choose who, out of such a golden cache of fine musicians, might advance to the finals Sunday. A popular sentiment from just about every audience member is that it’s too close to call and that they are glad they aren’t on the jury.

Right now, the buzz around Banff Centre is fairly uniform. With the competition this thick after two rounds and performances of three quartets, everyone is asking the same question:

“How can the jury possibly choose from such evenly-matched competing quartets?”

Of course, there are quantified scores assigned to every string quartet after the completion of each round and a grand aggregate score will be tallied up determining who will go through. But what if it’s too close to call? In that event, does it really come down to bean counting?

Well — yes and no. Ultimately, even after the mathematics has revealed which lucky quartets will advance, and after Sunday’s final recital a grand prize winner is selected, a juror also has the prerogative, when examining those aggregate scores, to themselves one question: who do I really want to hear again?

Juries take seriously their obligation and responsibility to ask whether a given sound ethos as presented by a competing quartet is one the world needs to hear more of. Clean proficient playing, and even good interpretive prowess do not always win the day. Nor do the favourites. How many wonderful, musical, adroit-playing audience favourites have not advanced in BISQCs past? There have been many. Indeed, many of us can name some of them from years ago, still etched forever into our memories!

Somewhere, factored into the analysis is the risk-to-reward ratio of what pieces a competing quartet chooses to play combined with the originality of the sound world they are able to project when expressing style and emotive power. Sometimes there can be high rewards to reap for choosing a work that is performed less frequently than sticking to standards, a risk we saw more quartets willing to take in the previous competition (but let’s wait until the ad lib round Saturday to see how that idea plays out).

However, if any performance sounds too derivative, too practised, or lacking on-stage spontaneity, it can, at times, be a red flag for a juror. In the end, juries will gravitate to what moves, and what stirs, and what answers the inner appeal of “do I want to hear them again”?

After ten performances Wednesday, as always, many people have their favourites, but there is no consensus in public opinion out there who could advance. And after hearing the Romantic/Nationalistic round of competition held at Eric Harvie Theatre, it would seem to be very close indeed, with lots more music to come.
To start, Tesla Quartet set the bar high early with the first of three performances we were to hear of Ravel’s prescient and masterly String Quartet in F.

Tesla achieved a gold standard Wednesday morning, even in their opening bars, when they placed clear counterpoint at a premium in this interpretation and gave an eerie glow to the opening fluttering motives. They brought a superior sense of pacing, stunning balance and transparency of voicing undergirded with clear thematic development.

They showed assiduous care when building the atmospheric elements into the work, taking none of them for granted, offering shimmering translucence and ethereal projection of the spectral, ghostly qualities inherent in Ravel’s harmonic writing. Tesla played like an ocean wave that undulated over its audience, then gradually receded, until it left a curious new calm in its wake.

In the last movement, Tesla Quartet scaffolded the broad dynamic range of emotive power with scrupulous care distilling all the work’s power into one of the most compelling narrative interpretation I have ever heard in this work. Powerful …

What a way to start the day.

But perhaps it was Aeolus Quartet who produced the most unexpected performance of all: a highly intelligent, crisp, but deeply considered reading of Dvorák’s Quartet No. 14 in A-flat major, a difficult work to pull off on several different levels. Yes, it’s the one that opens incredibly and improbably in A-flat minor (seven flats) — a challenge to resonance, sonority and one that only continues to make demands on its performers when the composer modulates to such bizarre keys (at least, on stringed instruments) as C-flat and F-flat major.

How does one make an instrument resonate in those far-off keys that seem to come from, well, outside the Milky Way galaxy?

Therein lies one of the many challenges to be found in what is, without a doubt, my favourite of the five last quartets of Dvorák.

Making the violin resonate in A-flat major is a far cry from the natural reverberant properties found in the instrument when one plays in a key naturally closer to home, like D. Dvorák chose A-flat major on purpose to challenge a string quartet to find ways around the problem, both compositional and performance, calling on players ultimately to create a potentially very different sounding piece than was the norm to that point. (So few pieces were written at that time in so many flats — I can think of a Saint-Saens orchestral work in D-flat — typically, until Wagner came along, E-flat major was the limit).

And what a pleasure it was to hear this piece so well performed and to hear Aeolus meet the interpretive, harmonic and formal challenges inherent in the work. The folkloric aspects in the suave and lovely Lento movement, the structural sophistication so typical of late Dvorák which Aeolus brushed aside with enviable ease, and especially the unstinting ensemble panache to exploit those darker chordal sonorities combined with a completely authentic presentation of the Czech folkloric and seemingly inexhaustible rhythmic ideas were all elements fully at the command of a masterful Aeolus Quartet. An overwhelming presentation, especially the ending to the fourth movement — froze me in my seat.

The Argus Quartet offered the seldom heard Sibelius String Quartet Op. 56, ‘Voces intimae.’ Argus had a lot to offer with their striking interpretive posture and there was much to take away from this jaunty and spicy performance. The dance aspects and pure joy to be found in the work’s rhythmic saltatory fun was well counter-balanced in the third movement’s more typical tone poem scenescape feel. They certainly gave the fourth movement a strong contrapuntal showing especially with those great cascading scales.

The other two Ravel performances had much to offer to, but for qualitatively different reasons. Castalian String Quartet gave a more piquant, timbrally bright performance than Tesla Quartet. With many fine moments of emotive expression, Castalian paid unremitting attention to every detail, moulding it to their thicker ensemble blend, a sound world in direct contrast to Tesla. With an energetic, robust and rich solidity in their lower strings, combined with a bright timbre above, Castalian String Quartet created a very different Ravellian world, and a heartily welcome one.

Later that evening, Rolston String Quartet’s interpretation created a third, very different world out of Ravel’s ethereal, youthful masterpiece. It was a performance that suggested, or implied, more than it delineated in terms of a definitive pictorial shape to the work. I was struck by how spectrally haunting the ensemble could be, particularly in that lovely, transcendental third movement.

Finally, there were some other notable performances to mention. Omer Quartet gave a sweetly spiced Debussy Quartet while Quartet Berlin-Tokyo offered a approach to Brahms’s Quartet Op. 51 No. 2 that dispatched the larger-scale difficulties of interpreting the structural dimensions with belying ease. It was hard to argue with such effortless mastery, their exquisite balance through their ensemble playing and their naturalness at conveying the unabashed epitome of Romantic expression, especially in that robust fourth movement.

Now it is on to the Canadian commissioned work round. Who knows what can happen next?

Addendum: To clarify my position on the aspect of writing a composition in A-flat major. People have written in A flat before — they just didn’t write large-scale, multi-movement works in that key very often, or maybe would execute only a modulation section to that key.

Of course, they could use the key for one movement too, as in Beethoven’s second movement of the Fifth Symphony. But my point here is that it is Dvorák’s use of the key that is unusual, particularly with its far out aligning key areas and chord choices.

The same is true for four-flat minor keys. They were not unusual in and of themselves when Beethoven explored them but by the end of the nineteenth century, searches for differing resonances presented new challenges to composers, and thus, how composers used those keys changed.

Stephan Bonfield, Calgary Herald
Related Link
Back to List
Back to Top