Australian Academy of Music and Melbourne Recital Centre
July 1 – 8, 2018

Move over World Cup, Wimbledon and your television streaming service of choice. Why indulge yourself with those when you can binge-listen to live chamber music? Once every four years the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition (MICMC) allows lovers of chamber music to hear the very best young musicians the world has to offer as they compete for a prize pool of $150,000. Luckily, the Victorian government, Musica Viva, the Melbourne Recital Centre (MRC), the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM) and a number of other partners have seen the value of the competition and how perfectly it fits Melbourne. Musica Viva has always had a strong base in the city, ANAM is actively involved in training the musicians of the future, and the MRC’s Elisabeth Murdoch Hall is the perfect space for performances. Such ideal conditions for a competition of this sort would be hard to better.

Germany’s Goldmund Quartett, which won first prize in the String Quartet division. Photograph © Mike Keating

After intensive preparations and a preliminary screening round, 56 musicians under the age of 35 (eight string quartets and eight piano trios) arrived in Melbourne for a week-long marathon with two rounds of heats, semi-finals and a grand final. A distinguished international jury chaired by the former leader of the Melbourne Symphony, Wilma Smith had the often difficult task of evaluating the week’s musical offerings. Australian composers were also commissioned to provide works especially for the competition: Holly Harrison’s Balderdash for string quartet and Paul Stanhope’s Pulses for piano trio.

The 2018 MICMC has been full of the energy, excitement and passionate discussion that comes with competitions. Attending some of the heats on the competition’s first day, I made the musical acquaintance of two groups that would feature in audience discussion, Quatuor Agate from France and the Clarendon Trio from Melbourne. The all-male French quartet particularly impressed with a brilliant account of Bartók’s Third Quartet, despite violist Raphaël Pagnon having to contend with a broken string half-way through. (They recovered well from this interruption.) A later heat also saw them give a poignant reading of Debussy’s evocative Quartet. The Clarendons, the only Australian competitors in the competition, also acquitted themselves well in the heats with lucid performances of Haydn, Tcherepnin and Stanhope.

Come the semi-finals on Friday, there were bound to be some disappointments. Sadly, the Quatuor Agate did not make it to this stage. (It was good to hear, however, that the jury was generous in spending time with competitors in giving detailed feedback.) The Clarendons, the hope of the nation and the host city were through. Across a twelve-hour day five quartets and five trios battled it out for a place in the finals. The repertoire in this stage was confined to a work by Beethoven or Schubert.

In the trio department we heard Schubert’s second trio in E-flat major (D. 929) twice. The Amatis Trio’s bright approach contrasted with the less characterful performance of the Mosa Trio. The Clarendons’ choice of Beethoven’s quirky Op. 70, No. 2 did not do them any favours and this was the last we were to hear of them in the competition. Trio Gaon’s selection of Beethoven’s Ghost” Trio allowed them to demonstrate their energised, risk-taking approach with a well-known masterpiece. Trio Marvin’s choice of Schubert’s sunny B-Flat Trio was a good one and in the slow movement we were rewarded with one of the few “swoon” moments in a day of serious music making.

For the quartets, it was a day of three accounts of Beethoven’s second “Razumovsky” quartet, Op 59, No. 2. The first, by the Gildas Quartet had moments of great beauty, especially in the meditative second movement to which the group’s soft-hued tone was particularly suited. The second, by the Goldmund Quartett was a masterclass in superb artistic union and understated yet powerful musical impact. By contrast, the Callisto Quartet tried to impose its will on the score, especially in the finale, with mixed results. By way of contrast, the Eliot Quartett chose Schubert’s Death and the Maiden to generally good effect, but requiring more finesse in the variation movement. Their willingness to tackle such a well known work was a tactic also used effectively in the finals. Beethoven’s “Harp” quartet was also a pleasant experience provided by the Idomeneo Quartet.

And so to the finals, where three trio and three quartets engaged in the ultimate show-down, where each ensemble performed a piece of their choice. If the competition was a feast, we were seriously overfed. Two trios (Trio Gaon and the Amatis Piano Trio) elected to play the heady work by Ravel, while going out on a limb, the Trio Marvin played Weinberg’s brutalist Piano Trio, Op. 24. Trio Gaon opened proceedings with an incendiary reading of the Ravel that crackled with musical electricity throughout. The high energy of Pantoum, the scherzo movement with its treacherously high, exposed violin writing was beautifully contrasted with the spooky Passacaglia. The trio’s ability to inhabit the impressionist sound world marked them as a potential winner. The Amatis had a softer view of the Ravel but also impressed with attention to detail.

The Weinberg, an austere work for listeners and a challenging one for performers, saw the Trio Marvin win the trio first prize with an atmospheric performance (they went on to win the competition’s Grand Prize). Choice of repertoire is an issue that pervaded discussion through the week, but in this case a daring choice, finely executed won the day.

Brahms featured heavily in the quartet finals, with the chance to hear both the quartets of Op. 51, but the Eliot Quartett, as it had in the semi-finals, chose to play a blockbuster, Beethoven’s Op. 132. The Callisto Quartet (a controversial finalist choice for some) played the Op. 51, No 1 with increasing levels of energy, eventually using the work’s final pages to give some determined, fiery playing. Choosing a work that relies on the projection of an inner spirituality (Op. 51, No 2) could have been a risky choice for any group other than at the top level, but the Goldmund Quartett from the very beginning had a calm assurance that radiated understanding and joy in their music making. A hard act to better.

After interval came the Beethoven. The Eliot Quartett chose to hit the chamber music audience in the sweetest of sweet spots: the aching beauty of the “Heiliger Dankgesang” of Op. 132. Playing with great conviction, the audience was indeed in swoon mode.

So what was the final verdict? Would sheer emotion win out over discipline and sheer togetherness? In the end, emotion took second place and the Goldmund Quartett deservedly won the quartet section.

In an exhausting but immensely gratifying and rewarding week, there was much to think about as these fine musicians went about their task, but we can but hope that we have opportunity to do it all again in four years’ time! If MICMC is any measure, chamber music is in excellent health!

The winners of the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition Grand Prize and Piano Trio Division Trio Marvin will perform at the Independent Theatre in North Sydney as part of Musica Viva’s Coffee Concerts Series on July 11.