CONCOURS DE GENÈVE – 75 YEARS OF MUSICAL DISCOVERY
Seventy five years of music…
A fruitful collaboration
In 1939, Arturo Benedetti-Michelangeli won the first International Competition of Musical Execution. Radio-Geneva, which broadcast the prizewinners’ concert, made the young artist known to its listeners and thus helped to anchor the newly growing reputation of music competitions. The Competition’s organizing committee included at the time two contributors of Radio-Geneva, Félix Pommierand René Dovaz, pioneers of a fruitful institutional collaboration.
The French-speaking Swiss radio – Radio-Geneva, then Radio Suisse Romande (RSR) and, today, Radio Télévision Suisse – Espace 2 (RTS) rapidly became one of the competition’s essential partners. Since 1939, it has been recording the final concert accompanied by the prestigious Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, progressively extending its partnership to the final exams and public recitals.
It needed such a connoisseur as Ulrich Kohler, former RSR sound engineer, to guide Didier Schnorhk, General Secretary of the Competition, through this imposing
stock of sound archives generously made available by the RTS. As they listened to the archives, Ulrich Kohler and Didier Schnorhk discarded documents that had suffered from age, or whose technical or artistic quality left to be desired. The chosen recordings give as representative a picture of the Geneva Competition as possible. The Genevese competition programs several disciplines per year. With over ten thousand candidates and around 760 prizewinners, it is like a mosaic of which this collection offers a few of the most brilliant fragments.
Amazing musical variety
Honour to whom honour is due: fifteen of the forty-three recordings are dedicated to pianists and singers. These key disciplines, regularly programmed, include such illustrious artists as Arturo Benedetti-Michelangeli who played Franz Liszt’s first Piano Concerto during the prizewinners’ concert.
With Teresa Stich-Randall at its head – of whom a Genevese journalist praised the “already accomplished professionalism” in 1951, the whole collection of singers chosen for this anthology is characterized by a rare sense of drama. In 1964, bass-baritone José Van Dam “uplifts the audience with the poignant accents that he gives to the Don Carlos aria”; in 1983 “the strong sense of dramatical construction” and the “faultless stage intelligence” of soprano Juliana Gondek conquered the audience; six years later, the press judged Michèle Crider “cut out for the lyrical scene”. At a time when candidates could sing in their chosen language, Dutch singer Nelly Ameling’s perfect French diction astonished both jury and audience. Closing this parade, Annette Dasch, as convincing on stage as in the recital of Richard Strauss’ Lied “Befreit”, is a reminder that the competition rewards complete artists.
Beside these “star” disciplines, the Geneva Competition also highlights instruments that are less represented in international competitions, of which this archives collection offers a real anthology. For instance, Gilbert Audin and Nico Abondolo underline the poetry, elegance and sensitivity of the bassoon and double bass, rarely heard as soloists; harpist Susanne Mildonian and guitarist Dusan Bogdanovic both enhance the finesse and richness of sound of their instruments. Performances such as those of the New York Vocal Arts Ensemble, organist Jonathan Biggers, conductor Alan Gilbert and percussionist Aiyun Huang encourage the discovery of original works.
Variety of disciplines mirrors variety of artists. Such are the differences in their career that it is impossible to brush a typical portrait of the Genevese prizewinner: men, women, first and second prizes – such as Teresa Stich-Randall, Maurizio Pollini and Christian Zacharias -, soloists, orchestra and chamber musicians mingle in this collection. Strictly impartial, the Geneva Competition equally crowns accomplished musicians and promising talent: extremely young when they competed – they were aged 16 to 20 - Martha Argerich, Tabea Zimmermann, Louis Schwizgebel-Wang and Lorenzo Soulès all prevailed over their elders.
Totally ignoring any extra-musical consideration, the Genevese jury rewards musicians from the world over. Certain nations however excel in specific fields: the three American singers, the Russian pianists Sergey Koudriakov and Evgueni Krouchevsy – whose success was due to “a breath-taking performance of Rachmaninov’s Sonata no 2” -, or the French brass/wind players Maurice André, Michel Debost, Michel Becquet and Gilbert Audin, are all tokens of the liveliness of these artistic schools.
However, their dominion is not unchallenged. In 1987, the “delicate and creative musicality” of Norwegian trumpeter leaves a strong impression. In the wind section, Swiss musicians rival with the French virtuosos: Aurèle Nicolet and Emmanuel Pahud, oboe player Heinz Holliger and clarinetist Thomas Friedli defend the national colours proudly. Korean cellist Myung-Wha Chung confirms the rising influence of Asian musicians on the international scene.
Music of today and yesterday
This anthology is also an echo of the repertoire prescribed for the competition. From Alessandro Marcello (1673-1747) to Kaija Saariaho (1952), the young candidates interpret works from every period, testing their technical and stylistic competence.
Beside the long-lasting masterpieces, such as Mozart’s Flute Concerto (Irina Krstic-Grafenauer) or the Brahms and Beethoven quartets (Melos, Hermès and Armida Quartets), there are 20th century works such as Aram Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto (Jean-Jacques Kantorow). Some are even contemporary with the tests: the Geneva Competition has been commissioning pieces from Swiss composers since 1939. In 1979 and 2001, Michel Becquet and Silvia Careddu thus revive memories of the first two editions for which Frank Martin composed his Ballades.
Prizewinners of the Geneva Competition have a gift for enveloping the most trivial works with graceful charms. Alexei Ogrintchouk interprets Johann Wenzel Kalliwoda’s Morceau de salon with rare elegance; Nelson Goerner adds a poetic touch to Andrey Schulz-Evler’s twirling Arabesques on « The Beautiful Blue Danube ». These virtuosos however put their undeniable technical skills to the service of the music: Ryszard Groblewski, who gives his undivided attention to the grace of the notes, the preciseness of phrasing and the intensity of his musical dialogue”, moves the Genevese public, as does István Várdai, wonderfully consumed with emotion in his rendering of La Lugubre Gondola.
Finally, these albums give homage to the prizewinners’ talented musical partners : anonymous or official pianists, such as Doris Rossiaud who assisted candidates for over twenty-five years, conductors who, following in Ernest Ansermet’s steps, have taken on the delicate task of accompanying, with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, these inexperienced musicians, and partner orchestras – Biel Symphony Orchestra and Musikkollegium Winterthur – fully contribute to the artistic success of the Geneva Competition. Marie Duchêne-Thégarid
Translated by Isabelle Watson