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Banff Day 1: Old speaks to new as 10 string quartets begin competing this afternoon

By John Terauds on August 26, 2013

The Banff Centre hosts the 11th Banff International String Quartet Competition, starting today.
The Banff Centre hosts the 11th Banff International String Quartet Competition, starting today.

There are 10 string quartets from around the world gathered for the 11th triennial Banff International String Quartet Competition starting today. All play on modern instruments, yet one of the jury members is a period-instrument specialist. Why?

Torontonian Tamara Bernstein explains it all in an essay included in the competition programme, where Banff competition director Barry Schiffman recalls the day when he and fellow St Lawrence String Quartet founding violinist Geoff Nuttall listened to a recording of quartets by Joseph Haydn performed on period instruments by Austrians, the Quatuor Mosaïques.

Both violinists were struck by the the heightened sense of musical rhetoric in the music. The sound from period instruments — string or wind — is less homogeneous from highest notes to lowest, imparting a particular texture to music that modern instruments can’t produce.

But the secret of period performance is not in the physical differences (such as a different bridge, or gut strings or a different sort of bow) or in tuning to a lower pitch. Rather it is in how each note gets along with its companions, on how, together, they make a story worth listening to.

As Bernstein writes: “The interpretive practices of period performances, Schiffman said, ‘are not add-ons. They are core musical values.’ ”

As this year’s historically informed judge, cellist Richard Lester of the London Haydn Quartet, said to Bernstein: “Gut strings make a tremendous difference to the articulation, colour, and the amount of sound that you produce. If you play to the full extent of their capacity, you get this wonderful sense of struggle without [the sound] being out of scale.”

What Lester and anyone else familiar with period performance practices will be listening for is these modern musicians’ ability to blend the spirit of times past with our need to be moved by the music we hear.

The first round of competition, today and tomorrow, pairs Schubert quartets (the competitors have chosen Nos 8, 9 10 and 11, making for easy comparisons) with 20th century works. These programmes bridge the unforced type of sound of the early 19th century with some much more modern struggles.

Wednesday is an all-Haydn day, which will really put the spotlight on these young musicians’ historical awareness.

It will make for fascinating listening at an event that prides itself on being one of the most significant of its kind in a world awash in competitions.

All of the music is being streaming live, thanks to a partnership with the CBC, beginning today at 4 p.m. Eastern. You’ll find all the details here.

And here is an illustration of what I’ve been writing about, using the very familiar second movement of Haydn’s “Emperor” quartet, starting with the period instruments of Quatuor Mosaïques from an album recording, followed by a 2011 concert performance by the Attacca Quartet, which is competing in Banff this year:

John Terauds

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