Magazine article Gramophone

Battling in Banff: Harriet Smith Joins a Gathering of 10 String Quartets on a Week-Long Course with a Competitive Element

Magazine article Gramophone

Battling in Banff: Harriet Smith Joins a Gathering of 10 String Quartets on a Week-Long Course with a Competitive Element

Article excerpt

It's difficult to imagine a more idyllic environment in which to hold a string quartet competition than Banff, in the Canadian Rockies. And the reality didn't disappoint. The conjunction of the brutalist 1960s architecture of the Banff Centre and the pine-clad mountains forms an energetic counterpoint, and the scent wafting into my room after the warm August rain was utterly evocative. One of Banff's mottos is 'At the intersection of art and ideas', and there was certainly a strong sense of that, heightened, perhaps, by the isolation of the place, during this, the 11th String Quartet Competition.

The competition runs every three years and, since its inception in 1983, has always worked on the same basis, handpicking just 10 groups from a relatively small but highly select group of applicants who spend an intense week at the centre performing a wide range of repertoire before being narrowed down to the final three, who then, this year, had to present Beethoven. Two of the quartets--the Navarra and the Dover--chose Op 59 No 2, while the Cavatine daringly opted for Op 130 with the original Grosse Fuge as finale.

As competition director Barry Shiffman points out: 'If a quartet isn't ready for this kind of competition, it can be a week of hell.' And he should know, having been until 2006 second violinist in the St Lawrence Quartet, which won first prize in 1992. And as Camden Shaw of the convincingly triumphant Dover Quartet said: 'You might be able to change the odd detail of a performance but ultimately there's no opportunity to improve anything in a fundamental way. …

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