It's been a slog, I am tired out and, no matter how fine the performances, I have had enough Bartok for one year, indeed three years, but we've gotten through the other six competing quartets for the first round of performance: one Haydn and one Bartok/Janacek apiece.
The Castalian Quartet, which is the only competing group to perform with the cellist seated at the end, is the one whose pre-competition videos I'd liked best, for vividness and immediacy. They were like that live as well. From the moment they started playing, it was as if someone had turned the treble and volume dials way up. They played a relatively serious Haydn Op. 76/1, but excelled at urgency of phrasing, at individual character, and at expressing varying harmonic moods. Where the Tesla's Bartok Six had been lyric, this was dramatic, but never overblown. Quiet, eerie sounds, energy and urgency when appropriate, outstanding clarity and definition in the contrapuntal passages, and an unerring sense of balance over principal and subsidiary voices, made for another great performance, though totally different from Tesla's.
The Quartet Berlin-Tokyo (sounds like the name of an Axis plot, but it's not) had a similar strong, bright sound, though perhaps a little tinnier. Their Haydn Op. 33/4 was fast, bright, and perky. It was a perfect embodiment of Haydn's sense of fun, especially in the surprises hidden in the finale. Bartok Five is anything but a perky quartet, but these folks did their damndest to make it so. It was bright and clear all the way through, those sometimes a little alarmingly vicious. Most impressive were the little patches of beauty they found here and there, like the chorale in the Adagio, which for once sounded like a chorale, and the little barrel-organ passage in the finale, which for once sounded like that, too.
The Quartet Arpa played an elegant, courtly, and dancelike Haydn Op. 33/2, mostly distinctive for the richness of its tutti sound. Their Bartok Five was light and fleeting in the fast movements, lyric and even lush in the Adagio without the glowing hush of Berlin-Tokyo, and carefully nuanced throughout. They too managed to give character to the barrel-organ passage.
The Ulysses Quartet is so named because the members live near Grant's Tomb. Perhaps they don't know Grant's reported comment on music: "I know only two tunes. One is 'Yankee Doodle,' and the other isn't." The most distinctive things about their Haydn Op. 76/5 were the beautiful blended sound and the unexpected speed of the finale. Their Bartok Four got the only thumbs-down from me this evening to that composer. Sounding as much like bees buzzing in a jar as it's possible for Bartok to sound, it had unvarying sonorities throughout, and such clogged voicing that I couldn't follow the score, the only time that happened. This is the kind of performance that gave Bartok a bad name, and which I'd hoped not to hear here.
The Omer Quartet also played Op. 76/5, doing so in as openly emotional a manner as Haydn will allow. Tense, stormy, tragic, and frantic by turns, it sounded at times more like Mozart. Janacek's First is a cross between Romantic and modernist, setting the two styles up to clash in the third movement, which consists of lyrical passages constantly interrupted by horrible screeching sounds. We got that here.
The Rolston Quartet played Haydn's very late Op. 77/1 with an energetic snap of exchange among parts, even though this group's style is even more first-violin heavy than the Tesla. The finale lost a little luster, however, and became routine. Janacek's Second came out like the First with a big emphasis on the abrupt contrasts of sounds, particularly in dissonant trills alternating with tender, lush passages. This group came close to the Argus Bartok Four in the weird sound qualities eked out.
Fortunately I'm not a juror, so I don't have to vote, but overall on this round I'd give particular honors to:
Haydn: Berlin-Tokyo, Verona (though almost everybody was good in this)
Bartok: Argus, Castalian, Tesla (Arpa and Berlin-Tokyo were also very good)