Three young string quartets competed for first prize, glory and lots of gigs, by playing Beethoven in the final round of the13th triennial Banff International String Quartet Competition. The quartets from Canada, the UK, and the USA played so well that they took the jurors into double overtime.

The Marmen and Viano String Qaurtets share First Prize © Jessica Wittman
The Marmen and Viano String Qaurtets share First Prize
© Jessica Wittman

The Callisto Quartet played first: Op.59 no. 2. They had been edgy the whole week, their physical exertions often matching their musical ones. I missed their opening round, in which all the contestants had been required to play one Haydn quartet and another composed after 1905. Their Dvorak Op.105 in the Romantic Round was provocative, feverish, skittish.

From the opening introduction of the Beethoven, the Callisto were restless; they launched the opening Allegro with pure nervous energy before finding a lovely segue to the movement's sunshine. Their Allegretto downplayed the syncopation; they raced to find the humor in the Russian theme. They launched the Finale as if they wanted to end with a stunner stroke like the Allegro molto of Op.59 no. 3. Amidst abrupt dynamic changes they ran the canonic passages so fast you couldn't hear the tones the cello was playing. After a hair-raising series of sudden pianissimos in the sublime rising figures towards the end, they took a chance with a big ritardando, pulled it off, and roared to a final brilliant return.

The Marmen String Quartet © Jessica Wittman
The Marmen String Quartet
© Jessica Wittman

The Marmen Quartet were something different, questing for what might be in the music this performance alone from all others; what might they find in Beethoven today? They had cruised to the finals with Haydn, Ligeti and Mendelssohn that were adventurous and unconventional; their leading into the first movement of Schubert's D.887 with Salvatore Sciarrino's Seventh Quartet was inspirational.

The Marmen's performance of Op.131 began with unconventionally soft sforzando accents in the opening fugue; they seemed to be always listening carefully to the pace and flow, building slowly throughout. They took the Allegro molto vivace fast with kittenish tendrils. The great theme and variations were lighter, fairly inconsequential until they took the Presto really presto and then too presto when they lost their focus in one of most notoriously impossible to syncopate passages in the literature for one nanosecond of a hemidemisemiquaver (a universe of time in late Beethoven). Everyone heard and nobody cared; the music went on as if nothing had happened. They were slow, again, and deeply reflective in the Adagio, then gave it everything they had in the Allegro; when they rose to make the last big restatement of the theme, it was as if they were racing for gold.

The Viano String Quartet © Jessica Wittman
The Viano String Quartet
© Jessica Wittman

Through all their performances the Viano Quartet worked elegantly and collaboratively, even beyond rotating violinists, to give a sense of being in the music together. In a field of quartets that already were clearly working closely on stage, the Viano had created an especially strong sense of being composed of equals in Haydn, Debussy and Schubert.

They were similarly well in tune and intended in Beethoven's Op.59 no. 3. They seized the Allegro vivace with a beautiful sound and ensemble, and pushed through a scrambled passage that might have rattled another ensemble; perhaps they were too fast but the audience seemed to be liking it. Their Andante con moto was slightly fast. The Menuetto grazioso was slightly fast, which I enjoyed. As it turned out, they didn't take the Allegro molto too molto, which was a good thing because it allowed them to put not only speed but character into the music, like the cellist did with his ferocious eight-bar scramble up into the C string's stratosphere. One thing that set the Viano apart: from the very first to the last the first violinist soared. Sometimes that can be a distraction; here it was absolute inspiration.

After what seemed like hours, perhaps indicating that the jurors and the electronic scorecard machine were at odds, it was announced that the First Prize had been awarded jointly to the Marmen and the Viano. There were roars of delight from the audience, most of whom had stayed for the result. The participants embraced each other warmly. At the press conference we learned they called their parents first, and that they're all going back to school.

The Marmen and Viano Quartets will each receive cash, and share concert tours and a creative residency at Banff Centre for recording, coaching and mentoring. The two will also split a newly-established residency at Southern Methodist University's Meadows School of the Arts.