Esme Quartet win Wigmore Competition

I’ve followed three differing competitions over the past ten years, all spanning a range of musical genres. All of them, the most recent being the Wigmore Hall String Quartet Competition, are linked by a similar personal experience: investing in the process, backing a winner, hearing the result, after which an intense feeling of self-loathing descends.

In the case of the Wigmore winners tonight – the Esme Quartet – I was surprised they won, but not in any way disappointed. There are no weak players in a competition like the Wigmore. Its an impossible competition in that respect. We’re observing differing levels of musicianship, different interpretations, and different sounds. It’s those differences which are at the heart of the listening experience that makes the ranking of competitors a (kind of) redundant process.

What I’ve enjoyed most this week is the opportunity to get closer to chamber music. It’s been like discovering me and the OH have another floor in our house on which there are number of new rooms to peer inside. I really value those new opportunities. Such new excursions are what keep me sane(ish). Listening to contrasting performances has flexed my listening muscles (so to speak).

I was backing the Goldmund Quartet. I adored their playing and found their presence on staging captivating. But I’m not sorry they didn’t come first (that would unsporting to the Esme and incredibly mean-spirited to third place Viano). What helps sustain this art form is the idea demonstrated once again here that different people hear things in different ways.

There’s the chance to watch over the whole thing again tomorrow and see what I missed too. Maybe then I’ll process through the odd sense of self-loathing I’m experiencing – that unsettling feeling of having regretted getting quite so involved in and enthused by something which is now at an end and forgotten about. More on that story in a future post.

2018 Wigmore Hall String Quartet Competition Final streamed live on Facebook and YouTube

Yesterday saw three semi-finalists selected for the Grand Final of the Wigmore Hall String Quartet. The three quartets who've secured their place in the final – Goldmund, Esme, and Viano, have already won a cash prize. Who gets awarded what is decided in the final that starts at 6pm tonight, streamed live on Facebook and YouTube.

I attended the first semi-final at Wigmore Hall yesterday afternoon. Right from the start I was blown away by the Goldmund Quartet who opened the competition with Beethoven's Op.59 No. 2 in F minor. They opened with an unequivocal commitment, energy and drive that was arresting in the concert hall. And, now I come to watch it back on Facebook, I'm relieved I didn't imagine their prowess either. There is an undeniable drive to their playing. The second movement triggered the tear ducts yesterday – its done the same today. Based on the semi-finals my money's on them to win the £10K first prize. 

In this way, the Goldmund Quartet set the bar high for the first semi-final. Quartuor Tchalik who followed didn't seem able to reach the same emotional depths – the dynamic range was undoubtedly there, but some of the intensity was missing. The third movement cello pizzicato solo in Beethoven's Op.59 No. 1 certainly brought the group into the right groove, but even then I still wanted them to go further. Emotionally, I wanted to be put through the ringer, so to speak.

And having heard two performances of Beethoven's Op.132 in A minor, I think that both the Marmen Quartet who followed in the first semi-final and Quatuor Amabile who concluded the second semi, chose works with uncompromisingly demanding openings. In the case of the Marmen quartet it felt like there was some timidity at the start which made me feel uneasy; Quartuor Amabile pulled off a more convincing start in comparison. 

This isn't a foregone conclusion

That's not how the decision is necessarily made. As with each stage in this competition, I've been reminded about how something you think sounds amazing doesn't necessarily register with the jury. And, seeing as its live performance, just because a group blew you away one day, doesn't necessarily mean they'll do the same the following day. The final features new repertoire not previously heard at the competition – romantic repertoire throughout. So, it could be that another group shines brighter in the final this evening.

It's an addictive experience

That's one of the things that has pulled me into this competition a whole lot more deeply than I ever imagined it would. Having a range of performances and groups to compare and contrast makes for a far more immersive, and I'd also suggest addictive, concert experience. Hearing contrasting groups has helped me better understand playing practise, the impact chemistry (or a lack of it) has it on a performance, and it's resulted in me hearing a whole lot more chamber music by Beethoven in one day than I've heard in a long long time. 

Trust your listening instincts

I've also been reminded about how engaging with this art form is about learning to trust our own individual listening instincts. When I heard the Goldmund in the Wigmore I knew immediately I loved what I was hearing. But, as much as I love writing (loads of copy), I'm not sure I could exactly pinpoint the mechanics of that musical creation (probably a good thing for all concerned).

I assumed when I sat down to watch the second semi-final on YouTube that I'd struggle more to have an instinctive feel for who I connected with and who I didn't. But it didn't turn out to be that way. There is a feeling you get when something special is happening on stage whether you're there in person or watching online. I still find it difficult to explain, but its what I'm always looking for as a listener.

Nearly half as many more viewers on Facebook than YouTube

What really surprised was the number of people watching on Facebook rather than YouTube. I notice at the time of writing that there were over 1K viewers of the second semi-final on Facebook as opposed to approximately 600 on YouTube. My assumption was that more people would be watching on YouTube as the app offers more opportunity to cast to connected TVs. Inevitably, I'm now fascinated to know what the demographic is watching on Facebook. 

The finalists of the Wigmore Hall String Quartet Competition 2018 are:  The Goldmund Quartett, the Esmé Quartet, and the Viano Quartet. 

Watch the Wigmore Hall String Quartet Competition final on Sunday 15 April from 6pm, streamed live on the Wigmore Hall YouTube channel or via the Wigmore's Facebook page. 

Catch-up on Semi-Final One and Semi-Final Two via the Wigmore Hall's Facebook page or via YouTube.

The Thoroughly Good Blog is an independent blog celebrating classical music and the arts. Please consider supporting its development in 2018 by giving a donation using this PayPal.