By Inge Kjemtrup
Every three years 12 of the finest young string quartets in the world vie for first prize at the Wigmore Hall International String Quartet Competition in London. Laureates of this competition include the Takács, Alexander, Belcea, Endellion, and Danish quartets: clear evidence that taking home a prize from this competition can launch a career.
A quartet has to work hard to win, though. I’ve been told by past participants that simply preparing for this competition can boost playing levels, even just making the first step of submitting a CD recording of a Haydn quartet. If subsequently invited to London for the preliminary rounds, a group must learn a quartet by Mozart, another by Haydn, a major 20th-century work, and a set piece.
This year’s set piece was The Four Quarters Op. 28 by Thomas Adès, whose Arcadiana memorably was featured in the 2009 competition. Written in 2010 for the Emerson Quartet, The Four Quarters is full of color, brash outbursts, and rhythmic subtleties. The title alludes to T.S. Eliot’s poem cycle Four Quartets, a meditation on the human experience of time. The Four Quarters explores the ungraspable nature of time, from the diurnal cycle (“Nightfalls”) to “time outside time” of the last movement, “The Twenty-Fifth Hour.” The Castalian String Quartet gave an engaging lecture-demonstration at the opening of the competition.
Getting musical insight was one reason why people sat through the all-day preliminaries in the Duke’s Hall at the Royal Academy of Music. There were other reasons, of course. Some audience members were the family or friend of a quartet (the three UK-based quartets—Gildas, Marmen, and Solem—had enthusiastic hometown support). Other audience members were musicians themselves. One British amateur viola player told me, “It’s lovely to hear all the quartets, but the only reason I think go is that I play lots of quartets myself and there’s a very strong learning experience. I go as if I’m going to a master class; it’s the same kind of benefit.”
Ed Fisher came from Southern California to attend the competition, describing it as the culmination of a newly found passion for string-quartet music that began four years ago at the Colburn Conservatory of Music in Los Angeles when he heard a performance of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden by Calidore Quartet that “just blew me away.” The presence of the Viano String Quartet, founded at the Colburn in 2015, was icing on the cake.
The Vianos’ resplendently operatic reading of Mozart’s “Hunt” Quartet K.458 was fine work from a group that’s only been in its current formation since 2017 and was among the youngest in average age (21), a contrast to the Goldmund Quartet from Germany (age 26/formation since 2010). The Goldmund and the Quartet Amabile (Japan), both prizewinners in the 2016 ARD competition, were highly tipped by knowledgeable audience members. I was impressed by the Goldmund’s warm sound and tight ensemble in Haydn Op. 33, No.1, and by the Amiable’s angst-filled Janacek Quartet No. 1, “Kreutzer Sonata.” Another highlight was a mesmerizing performance of Ligeti’s First Quartet by the Quatour Tchalik, a French ensemble comprised of four siblings.
Besides listening to the preliminary rounds, one could also attend concerts, master classes, and a film screening of 4, featuring the Quatuor Ebéne. The French superstars gave filmmaker Daniel Kutschinski intimate access to their lives on a tour. We see them energized after a great performance, but more often we see arguing with each other. Having interviewed the Ebénes, I can see that this quirky film captures their personalities, but it is too long and a bit fatiguing to watch.
Six quartets made it to the all-Beethoven semifinals at the Wigmore Hall. The Goldmund and the Esmé (four South Korean players based in Germany) chose the quartet in E minor Op. 59, No. 2, their very different performances securing them both a place in the final, along with the Viano, who presented a well-shaped Op. 135. In the Romantic final the following night, the Goldmunds served up a substantial Ravel and the Vianos dished out a decent Dvorak Op. 105, but it was the Esmé’s monumental Schubert Quartet in G D.887 that was the Michelin-starred meal.
I had noticed one of the judges, the legendary violist Nobuko Imai, looking very relaxed the intermission, so I wasn’t too surprised when the announcement of the results came quickly. Perhaps, with a jury that also included Takács Quartet members András Fejér and Károly Schranz, violinist Heime Müller (formerly of the Artemis), cellist Bjørg Lewis (Vertavo), violist Jonathan Brown (Cuarteto Casals) and Wigmore Hall director John Gilhooly, there was enough expertise to arrive at a swift decision.
First prize went to the Esmé, along with other prizes, including residencies at the Banff Centre, Avaloch Farm and Esterházy Foundation, and a recording with Champs Hill Records. Second prize and best performance of 20th-century work (Rihm’s Fourth Quartet) went to the Goldmunds, while the third prize and the best Haydn performance went to the Vianos. Gilhooly explained that throughout the 52 performances they heard, the jury was deeply impressed by the standard of playing, and, after this exhilarating week, I agree that the future of the quartet is in good hands.