Monday 30 March 2015

Finals of the Wigmore Hall String Quartet Competition

Van Kuijk Quartet (winners of the Wigmore Hall String Quartet Competition) performing in the final - photo Ben Ealovega
Van Kuijk Quartet
(winners of the Wigmore Hall String Quartet Competition)
performing in the final - photo Ben Ealovega
Debussy, Ravel, Dvorak; Aizuri Quartet, Verona Quartet, Van Kuijk Quartet, Piatti Quartet; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 29 2015
Star rating: 5.0

The finals of the 2015 Wigmore Hall String Quartet Competition, the culmination of a week of competition, masterclasses and performance.

Four quartets (two American, one French and one British) for the final of the 2015 Wigmore Hall String Quartet Competition at the Wigmore Hall on Sunday 29 March 2015. All this week quartets have been competing, alongside masterclasses and concerts by former participants. The quartets had already played quartets by Haydn, Beethoven, and a new work by Mark-Anthony Turnage, alongside other repertoire, and for this round the work was a romantic one. This meant that we heard the String Quartet in G minor Op.10 (1893) by Claude Debussy (1862-1918) from the Aizuri Quartet, the String Quartet in F major (1903) by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) from the Verona Quartet, Debussy's quartet from the Van Kuijk Quartet, and String Quartet in G major Op.106 (1895) by Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) from the Piatti Quartet.

Van Kuijk Quartet receiving their award from competition chairman John Gilhooly - photo Ben Ealovega
Van Kuijk Quartet receiving their award
from competition chairman John Gilhooly - photo Ben Ealovega
The Aizuri Quartet started things off with Debussy's String Quartet. Based in the USA, and formed in October 2012 the members of the quartet have all studied at the Julliard School and the Curtis Institute and the members are Japanese, American and Canadian with Miho Saegusa and Zoe Martin-Doike (violins), Ayane Kozasa (viola) and Karen Ouzounian (cello).

They started the first movement (Anime et tres decide) with strong dark tones and a lovely communal sense, with very strong phrasing and well modulated sound combined with vibrantly impulsive climaxes. The second movement (Assez vif et bien rythme) opened with rather dramatic pizzicato, with a strong yet delicately characterful viola, and there was a lovely perky swing to the movement and confident handling of the many changes of texture. The third movement (Andantino, doucement expressif) was again delicate, yet strong in character with a lovely veiled singing tone, which developed from calm to vibrant intensity and back.. The whole magical and mesmerising. Finally, the movement marked Tres modere - tres mouremente started with an intense introduction, leading to a dynamic and free-flowing fast section. Not metronomic, there was a lovely communality to the pulse and its variety. Throughout you felt that the four breathed the music together.

They were followed by the Verona Quartet playing Ravel's String quartet. Both Ravel and Debussy wrote a single example in the quartet genre, and each as inspired by predecessors with Debussy taking the cyclical form of Cesar Franck's String Quartet as the basis for his own essay in the genre (in 1893), and then Ravel building on Debussy's quartet for his own ten years later (1903).

The Verona Quartet is also based in the USA and the members are Singaporean, Canadian and American with Jonathan Ong and Dorothy (Sung-Sil) Ro (violins), Abigail Rojansky (viola) and Warren Hegarty (cello). The quartet was formed in January 2013 and has been in its present formation since June 2014.

The first movement (Allegro moderato, tres doux) had a real feel of civilised communal music making, with a lovely singing first violin and a sense of the dynamics being breathed together. Very dynamic in speed, and impulsive, the players brought a delicate touch to Ravel's transparent scoring yet erupted with intensity and passion during the climaxes. The second movement (Asset vif, tres rhythme  - lent - asset vif) had vibrant pizzicatos, a lovely light textures and again impulsive speeds, delicate yet not insubstantial with a fine touch in the ravishing scoring in the slower middle section. The third movement, Tres lent, was mysterious, wistful yet also quite strong, very poetic and deeply thoughtful. But yet, by now I did also rather worry that the performance might be a little too considered, a little too over thought through. The finale, Vif et agite, was full of contrasts both in dramatic intensity and speed, finally rushing vividly headlong to the conclusion.

After the interval the Van Kuijk Quartet played Debussy's String Quartet. The quartet is based in France, with all the members being French with Nicholas van Kuijk and Sylvain Favre-Bulle (violins), Gregoire Vecchioni (viola) and Francois Robin (cello). The quartet was formed in December 2011 and has been playing in its current formation since July 2014. (They were the only group which performed with the cellist on the stage left, all the others placed the viola player stage left with the cello facing the audience between viola and violins.)

They opened the Debussy quartet with passion and intensity, then moved into a texture which was delicate yet not precious. It had quite a considered feel, yet was impulsive too with a lovely sense of communality in the phrasing. The pizzicato of the second movement was darkly intense and quite insistent, with a bouncy viola solo. There was a sweetness to the violin solo which contrasted with the vividness of the quite muscular textures. In the third movement the players were very evocative, but still quite present in tone and it seemed intriguing rather than misterioso, followed by some magically sustained quiet textures. All in all, some highly beautiful playing.  The last movement was considered and finely phrased, but then launched headlong and impulsive into the faster section. This highly dynamic, but not driven and a lovely sense of rubato despite the feel, and a superb headlong rush at the end. The quartet gave the feel of four individuals rather than a common united sound, but the four creating a dialogue between equals.

The final quartet was the British quartet, the Piatti Quartet with members being Canadian, irish and British with Nathaniel Anderson-Frank and Michael Trainor (violins), David Wigram (viola) and Jessie Ann Richardson (cello). The quartet was formed in October 2008 and has been playing in its present formation since January 2013.

After three quartets by two French composers, it was frankly something of a relief to turn to Dvorak's very different kind of genius. His String Quartet in G major Op.106 was written after his return to Czechoslovakia after his period in the USA and it is notable for its melodic fecundity. The opening Allegro moderato was both poised and intriguing, with a lovely long-limbed feel to Dvorak's melodies and a great sense of communal purpose. The textures varied between delicate and muscular with  wonderful impetus at the end of the movement. In the second movement (Adagio ma non troppo) they brought a lovely Czech feel to the melodies, and a fine sense of Dvorak's distinctive scoring with its richly varied textures. They brought a sophisticated sense of communal music making to the movement, giving the ambiguous melody real emotional depth. The Molto vivace was a scherzo with two trios, the main scherzo being strong toned, full blooded and full of distinctive rhythms whilst the trios were more relaxed with an intimate sense of dialogue. The last movement opened with a magically sustained and hushed Andante sostenuto before the main Allegro con fuoco which was vividly characterised with lively rhythms and some wit. The mad rush was interrupted by the return of the Andante sostenuto which ushered in an evocative section with a Dvorak recalling earlier material until finally we rush madly to the end.

There was then another pause before John Gilhooley and the judges (Levon Chilingirian, Valentin Erben, Peter Jarusek, Heime Muller, Lesley Robertson and Simon Rowland-Jones) came to the stage to announce the results. It is always difficult to predict the results of the competitions, as your response to the artists can be so subjective. Here, it was made doubly difficult as the quartets' performances in the previous rounds counted towards their final score. So, though we had not heard them in Haydn, Beethoven and Turnage, these performances mattered to the end result. And the way the final result might go was indicated by the awards presented for performances in the earlier rounds. The Piatti Quartet received the Sidney Griller Prize for the best performance of Mark-Anthony Turnage's Contusion. The Van Kuijk Quartet received the  Esterhazy Prize for the best performance of a Haydn quartet in the preliminary round, and they received the Bram Eldering Beethoven Prize for the best performance of a Beethoven quartet in the semi-finals. Also the Jeunesses Musicales Deutschland Prize went to the Quatuor Lumiere.

For the final, the Aizuri Quartet took third place, the Verona Quartet and Piatti Quartet were in joint second place with the Verona Quartet receiving the Pro Quartet Prize and the Piatti Quartet the Stanford Prize. The Van Kuijk Quartet took first place in the competition, and also received the Esterhazy Foundation Prize.

In his concluding remarks John Gilhooly commented that the judges had been deeply impressed with the overall standard of the competition, and that there had not only been more competitors than ever but that the average age was the youngest ever (most of the quartets being young enough to still be able to compete again in the 2018 competition!). The audience for string quartet concerts at the Wigmore Hall has doubled over the last 10 years, and all the events in the festival both at the hall and elsewhere were strongly supported.

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