For its final round for the entire entry of ten string quartets, BISQC did something new this year that they hadn't done in previous competitions. Each contestant was given 30 minutes to play anything they wanted for string quartet. It could be one work (3 did that), a set of 2 or 3 shorter works (5 of them) or even assorted movements from different pieces formed into a suite (2 of them). The only other restriction had been mentioned by the director at one of the lecture sessions earlier this week, when the presenter's PowerPoint refused to cooperate. "This," the director interjected, "is why we don't permit electronics or amplification in the competition rounds. Things could break down."
What will a young string quartet play if you give it 30 minutes to play anything it wants? A clue to the answer may be found in the fact that the two groups which didn't choose Bartok for the modern round, chose Bartok for this one. In fact, 9 out of the 10 picked at least one piece 20C or later, though 5 of these also included older works. Also, 5 included composers still living.
The two Bartoks, the Omer Quartet in the First and the Rolston Quartet in the Third, seemed to me solid, clearcut performances, admirable as Bartok goes though nothing revelatory. The Rolston got additional points from me for also including Schubert's Quartettsatz, the only work by that composer we've heard so far. Significantly better than either of these, and perhaps the best performance of the day, was the Ulysses Quartet in the Janacek Second. The Janaceks in the modern round had been harsh and painful, deliberately so I guess, as some liked them that way. This, however, was perky, lively, varied in mood, and sharply etched, and most importantly and unusually it sounded just like Janacek. I enjoyed it greatly, and it was more of a surprise coming from this group, whose Bartok I'd found painfully monochromatic.
A two-part program of conventional modernism came from the Verona Quartet, which played Webern's Op. 9 - a few plinks and a plonk, as Bernard Levin would say - and Ligeti's First Quartet from 1954. This is a rather tiresome collection of one modernist performing gimmick after another, but I must say the Verona played it well. Since they were the only other group whose Bartok I strongly disliked, and since the Ligeti was in fact on the repertoire list for the modern round, both they and the Ulysses could have improved their standings with me greatly by having played these pieces in the modern round, giving us a break from Bartok.
A choice that dared to be populist came from the Tesla Quartet, which played Hugo Wolf's Italian Serenade and Joaquin Turina's La oracion del torero, both in a smooth and airy style. They filled out their time with Allaqi by Marcus Goddard, which begins as a rough and jagged, but consonant, moto perpetuo. Gradually the same thematic material is transformed into a hushed hymn - this must be how it got on the program with the Wolf and Turina - and then returns to the beginning.
The most fervently contemporary offering came from the Argus Quartet, which followed a dull but worthy work of mildly spicy cast by Eric Guinivan with a more interesting, more modernist, and also more postmodernist, piece called Satellites by Garth Knox. I believe this had been commissioned by the Kronos Quartet, and it certainly sounds like something Kronos would play. Melodic fragments, often so close to the bridge as to sound like electric guitar licks, over punchy pizzicato rhythms and later spectral sound sheets, are eventually succeeded by a pop melody played in a jittery, disintegrating manner resembling the loss of a radio signal. The Argus had admitted in their interview that they chose this piece as a crowd-pleaser, and it sure worked on me.
They were, however, one-upped in this department by the Berlin-Tokyo Quartet, though the difference between them and the Argus shows that it's not enough to be experimental and imaginative: you still need also to be clever and concise. After having done a decent enough job with Beethoven's intense little Op. 95, the B-T somehow found time for the Hunting Quartet by Jorg Widmann. This begins with an imitation of a hunting call, but quickly descends into complete chaos and stays that way for too long a time. Where Knox had his performers play wittily, Widmann instructs his to play badly. See the difference? Much of the audience was laughing, but as the thing dragged on, I could feel all my previous respect for B-T's work leaching away. At the end, apparently all the other players kill the cellist by stabbing their bows at her. She utters a piercing shriek, and the piece is over.
That leaves the Arpa Quartet, which applied its characteristic elegant, dignified style on the work the group is named for, Beethoven's "Harp" Quartet, Op. 74, plus the two groups that tried potpourris. The Castalian Quartet interleaved movements from a quartet by the contemporary Brit Thomas Ades with movements from Schumann and Brahms that they thought went with it. They don't. The Aeolus Quartet had better luck constructing a Frankenstein's monster out of parts: a first movement from Mendelssohn, a slow movement from Debussy (a much wetter rendition than the Omer's in the Romantic round), and a finale from Beethoven. The only part that didn't work was the one contemporary movement, an overlong scherzo by Christopher Theofanides, an entry in the "bees buzzing in jars" school of composition.
I passed the festival manager in the hallway in front of the judges' room on my way out of the hall after the last of today's concerts. "Tell them good luck," I said. They'll need it. The names of the three finalist groups should be released in a couple hours, but I'm not staying up just for that. We'll know in the morning.