Report from ARD Competition 2023, 2nd Round (Day 2)

The prestigious ARD music competition 2023 (ARD Wettbewerb) for Viola is ongoing these days in Munich (D). Karin Dolman reports exclusively for the DVS her personal impressions day-by-day until the Final on Sunday, Sept. 10th.

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Round 2, Day 2 (Sept 6th, 2023):

Today we will listen to the last 9 viola candidates of Round 2.

We start off with Takehiro Konoe, here in the program listed as from Japan, but born, raised and educated in the Netherlands, where he studies with Nobuko Imai and Francien Schatborn at the Conservatory of Amsterdam.

Takehiro starts with Gourzi’s “Evening at the window” (recap: inspired by the Chagall painting of the same name), with the bells around his ankle. The first movement is again a joy to listen to. And every violist plays it differently. Takehiro plays the “Smoke from the chimney” very softly, and a bit more jazzy than others, with many accents. And all the “yellow Moon“s are very soft. “In your arms” is played with a lot of vibrato, and a very personal big vibrato which I am very fond of.

Chagall’s painting “Evening at the Window”

The next piece is by Takemitsu, but this time not ‘A Bird came down the Walk’, but ‘A String around Autumn’ (Editorial note: sometimes also referred to as Takemitzu’s Viola Concerto). It starts with a romantic build up of perfect harmonies. Earlier this year at Nobuko Imai’s 80th birthday celebration, Takehiro played “A Bird” in a heartbreakingly beautiful fashion, and now his Takemitsu is again touching in this 2nd round. The Adagio and Allegro by Robert Schumann is also so beautiful played, great.

The next competitor is Kyungsik Shin from South Korea. After a nice bow he starts off with Hindemith’s “1939” sonata.  Why he has a music stand at all I don’t know, because he plays everything by heart and with a big tone. And with so many characters. He is as well nice to look at.

His communication with this great pianist who plays with him (editorial note: Ken Nakasako) is also nice to see. Pizzicatos are played holding the viola like a guitar, I see him smile in the funny passages knowing the piano score so well. I am really sure we will see Kyungsik in the next round!

Curious how the Brahms will be! And that’s a surprise! He plays very light hearted. With a very light bow stroke he goes through the piece and takes the higher octave. And it sounds really nice. It will take some effort for the jury to understand this approach. I would play it differently, but that’s a question of taste.

The last piece is a composition by Olga Neuwirth (b.1968) from Austria. Her debut composition, written when she was 17, was ‘Die Kuh tanzt Ragtime’ (the cow dances ragtime). Also she wrote for the viola d’Amore!  This piece is called ‘Weariness heals wounds’ with scordatura on the C string, tuned down to a B flat. Virtuosic as well as exploring the sounds of the instrument. You can hear she was a student of Henze. The title of the piece I can’t really hear, but it is really astonishing how Kyungsik plays this extremely difficult piece! Great, we will see you back!

After a 20 minute break we continue with Gaeun Song from South Korea. She starts off with the Fantasiestücke by Schumann. No music stand, so everything by heart and that gives a special feeling. As an audience you are closer to the performer.

The solo piece Gaeun performs is the piece by Betsy Jolas. Hearing the piece for the second time, it starts to form an image. Gaeun’s small and long fingers make all the notes very clear.

Then we hear the (Hindemith) 1939 sonata again. Forget what I said about the sonata not being played often enough… but on the other hand, every musician gives the piece a magical new touch.

The last candidate this morning is the Chinese violist Zihan Zhang, who starts with the sonata in F by Brahms. He forgets to put one stand away and now his sound and view is blocked by this stupid stand.

By the way, there is one thing what I would like to do with nearly all competitors, go and look for better outfits! They are all on stage with awfully dull black clothes! When you come from China, why not some traditional clothing from your home!

Back to Brahms. Zihan tries to keep the Brahms more intimate. But now he is overwhelmed by the piano. It is a pity that Zihan doesn’t take us with him. He is playing along the piano.

As a solo piece Zihan chose the caprice by Bacewicz. Ah, he puts the stand away and there is a totally different viola player on stage. Nice ponticello pizzicatto at the end of the first episode. This is his thing, his fingers are extremely quick which is very imported in the caprice. I am glad he played the Bacewicz!

After the lunch break we listen to Pengxi Zhu from China. He opens his recital with ‘Evening at the window’ by Gourzi. Very impressive playing. The left hand pizzicati are a bit soft compared with the arco. He knows the piece very well, he really performs from the bottom of his heart!

His second piece is the sonata by Rebecca Clarke. It is a very personal approach. For my taste a bit too aggressive, but he plays it convincingly. In the second movement the light-footed element of the music comes across well in his playing. The sonata was composed for the 1919 Berkshire competition. Before that, Rebecca Clarke visited Asian countries with her trio, and used a lot of elements from Asia in her music. Like a lot of French composers from that time.

The last piece is the Arpeggione sonata by Franz Schubert. Pengxi plays very clearly in this sonata, but there is little chemistry between the pianist and viola player. He, on the other hand, tries to connect with the audience. The arrangement is very particular. Could be much simpler.

In the last movement his way of playing comes out very well. He does take a wrong turn at one point. You have to have them very good in your head. This arrangement is for me too much all in the same octave. Unfortunately the piece was not fully mastered by heart.

The room fills up now for the next candidate from Germany and from München; home turf favourite Carla Usberti. I have heard her several times before, and she is a remarkable young lady. She starts off with the Brahms sonata in E flat.  Great of tone and expression! And it all goes so easily.

As a solo piece she plays the Beamish. Carla plays it naturally with a beautiful vibrato in the high passages.

And then once more the (Hindemith) 1939. For Carla the program will be more relaxed than last year at the Hindemith competition. They had to learn so many pieces, which helps her now. She plays with so much ease and everything sound good but as well never dull! Always exciting!

After 10 minutes break we continue with Haesue Lee from South Korea. She starts off with the solo piece by Beamish – a great performance. She really plays to the audience. Haesue brings the piece in a timeless atmosphere.

The next piece on the program is the (Brahms) E flat sonata and yes, she plays it with love! And a nice expression on her face. A side note: she is the only one playing on high heels – and they are thin as nails! Back to Brahms, beautiful tempi in the first movement. Nice portamenti, not too much, just right. I wonder, why do the gentlemen (not all) lose so many bow hairs where the women don’t lose a single hair, when they play with the same strength and power? Who knows the answer?

Beautiful portamenti in the ending of the second movement. I think this is the most beautifully played Brahms so far, I know, still 2 candidates to go, but it is all I need, I can’t imagine someone playing even more beautiful.

In this competition, nobody had fine tuners on their instruments, which could have saved so much time in the tuning. The audience is not allowed to applaud between the pieces. Hmm.

The last sonata Haesue chose is the sonata opus 147 of Schostakowitch. Played with good taste, and not for herself but for us. Ah, a broken hair after all! I suppose shouldn’t have mentioned it. Okay it is the exception in the female world, one hair against 50? Heart breaking beginning of the third movement! Again one more for the next round!

It’s 7 PM and we start with the two last candidates!

First is Yixiu Lin from China, who starts with the Arpeggione sonata by Schubert. Great beginning. Yixiu plays the piece very delicately! A beautiful second movement and in the last movement she shows that she is capable of having all the characters in the right place.

The second piece on her program is the Lachrimae by Britten. A very good performance. Maybe sometimes a bit too eager. Sometimes the viola doesn’t respond to what she does.

The last piece is again the Beamish, perfectly played. It will be a tough task for the jury to take 6 candidates for the next round.

The last candidate of the evening (and of this round) is Emad Zolfaghari from Canada. He starts off with the Brahms F sonata. What passion. Emad is very tall! Every movement he makes (and he makes a lot) looks even bigger! But it comes from his toes! (Editorial note: a Dutch colloquialism, not to be taken too literally).

I said no better Brahms, but this one is at least as good as the other. I love his warm slow vibrato. It reminds me of Norbert Brainin, the first violinist of the Amadeus Quartet. I think Emad is still very young.

Yeah, a new piece on the program! L. Ronchetti, Studi profondi für Viola solo. The first movement is a very quick and schizophrenic movement. The second with mute sounds more like a passacaglia. The third is like someone wants to sing, but always gets disturbed; then the mute goes on again and the passacaglia comes back. The beginning comes back to the schizophrenic piece but very well performed. All kinds of extended techniques are used.

Last piece on the menu: Hindemith op.11 no.4, and I think this will be great. With his long fingers and beautiful vibrato and communication with his pianist, this can’t go wrong. The passage ‘Mit grosser Plumpheid vor zu tragen’ he did so great. Unfortunately one small mistake. But I think the jury will polish that away, what a musician!

Tomorrow is a day off! Friday we go on with the semi final! Lets see who’s in!

Editorial note: The jury selected the following players for the Semifinal on Friday:

  • Njord Kårason Fossnes, Norway
  • Brian Isaacs, USA
  • Ionel Ungureanu, Germany
  • Takehiro Konoe, Japan (and the Netherlands!)
  • Kyungsik Shin, South Korea
  • Haesue Lee, South Korea

Note: The competition is Livestreamed on the ARD website, and also on YouTube, where you can go back and listen (if you missed it) and make up your own mind of the performances!

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