Review: CLASSICAL Seventh International String Quartet Competition Barbican Hall, London

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The Independent Culture
You wouldn't normally associate trumpets and drums with the intimate genre of chamber music, and yet, when the chips were down and the judges at the Seventh International String Quartet Competition were ready to make their verdict public, on marched the Trumpeters of the Band of the Corps of Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers for a rousing rendition of Bliss's Fanfare for Heroes. There they stood in full military regalia, filling the Barbican Hall with some of the most polished brass playing it has ever heard.

The jury parade came next, then the speeches and a complete performance by the winning Auer String Quartet of Hungary. It was a ceremonious gala climax to a week-long process of eliminations, semi-finals and finals that had taken place at the Goldsmiths' Hall and that had weighed the virtues of 23 fledgling quartets from as far afield as Romania, Egypt, Italy, the US, the Ukraine and Sweden.

The Auers got together in 1990. All studied at the Franz Liszt Music Academy in Budapest and the Quartet has since won prizes at home and in Italy. Their showcase presentation centred on Mendelssohn's adorable A minor String Quartet, Op 13, a work that traces unmistakable parallels with Beethoven's Op 132 quartet in the same key. The song-like Adagio was played with considerable sweetness and sensitivity (the violist Gyorgy Gulyas-Nagy was especially responsive), though the main Allegro vivace was more busy than focused. Mendelssohn's Beethovenian debts are best exemplified in the slow movement and it was here, where ardent fugal argument predominates, that individual voices yielded the most in terms of colour and nuance. The Intermezzo was nicely done (though the trio sounded rhythmically ambiguous), whereas the finale was both confident and moving.

The concert's second half realised the zany idea of having the 23 participating quartets (plus half a dozen double-bass players from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama) form a string orchestra for performances of Bartok's Divertimento and Elgar's Introduction and Allegro. The conductor was Lord Menuhin, whose pre-concert speech informed us that, given adequate rehearsal time, we "might have heard something quite remarkable; though, as it is, we will hear something very good". Wishful thinking, I'm afraid. The 1994 Gala Concert had featured an en masse presentation of Schubert's Death and the Maiden quartet (in Mahler's arrangement), which was vaguely credible given that everyone participating must, at some time or other, have performed the work in its original guise. But Monday's circus act amounted to a vulgar upstaging of quality by quantity. Textures were heavy, ensemble sloppy (Elgar's Introduction and Bartok's Finale both came to grief) and neither performance could tell you anything whatever about the players themselves, save that they could sight-read.

It was the sort of spectacle you expect of first- or second-graders playing to mums and dads, but which hardly does justice to serious musicians who have spent months, sometimes years, fine-tuning dialogue with selected colleagues. It did, however, serve as a sobering reminder of how much time, effort and expertise goes into fashioning even the least accomplished professional orchestra.