The recent Grand Prix Emanuel Feuermann in the German capital was a fitting tribute to the man it was named after, writes Rebecca Schmid
With his unostentatious musicality and suave stage presence, Emanuel Feuermann (1902–42) remains an icon among history’s great cellists. In his short life he elevated the status of his instrument on the concert stage, and the few recordings he made before his death aged 39 reveal an exceptional talent, whether in Dvorák, Sarasate or Chopin.
In Berlin, where Feuermann taught at the music school (today’s University of the Arts) from 1929–33 before being expelled along with his Jewish colleagues, the fascination is even higher. In 2002, to mark the centenary of the cellist’s birth, the Kronberg Academy together with the University of the Arts founded the Grand Prix Emanuel Feuermann, a competition for promising young cellists that takes place every four years.
‘For us Germans, there is a particular responsibility, not only to the incomparable cellist Emanuel Feuermann but also the person who was expelled from Berlin in Nazi times,’ says Raimund Trenkler, director of the Kronberg Academy and a jury member since the first edition in 2002.
At the semi-finals of the fourth iteration at the Berlin Philharmonie in November, each candidate presented an hour-long programme. Provided they performed a Beethoven sonata and Australian composer Brett Dean’s Eleven Oblique Strategies for Solo Cello – a work commissioned for the competition – the candidates were free to design their own programme. The final round featured three players performing with the Kammerakademie Potsdam under Christoph Poppen. All three played Ernst Toch’s rarely performed Cello Concerto op.35 composed in 1924, in which the cellist is first among equals rather than taking the traditional central role; and Schumann’s Concerto in A minor – a challenge for its introspective tone and subtle dynamic nuances.
The format was conducive to the goals of this year’s jury chair Uzi Wiesel, who said he was first and foremost interested in discovering what he termed as a ‘special personality’ rather than a musician who demonstrates formidable technique. The nine-person jury, which included cello pedagogues David Geringas, Ivan Monighetti and Jens Peter Maintz, came to a consensus based on a simple yes or no vote, which Wiesel considers to be fairer than a points-based system. He added that because quality is subjective, it would not be possible to please every jury member.
Whether because the competition is relatively new or due to limited publicity, over half of participants had some connection to the University of the Arts, the Kronberg Academy or to the jury members. A separate jury panel had received some 90 DVDs, of which 40 met the submission requirements. All the candidates who made the semi-final and final rounds demonstrated a fine grasp of the extended techniques demanded by Dean’s solo work – a series of miniatures including ‘Ghost Echoes’, demanding a pianissimo brush tremolo, and ‘In a very large room, very quietly’, which called for a non-articulated floating bow stroke on the bridge. The winner of the prize for the best interpretation of the commissioned work, Germany’s Valentino Worlitzsch, took a particularly fast pace, all the while maintaining a transparent but resonant tone. Chiara Enderle of Switzerland, who won the third prize, stood out for the character she infused into every movement. South Korea’s Minji Kim, who was awarded the young musician’s prize, also created convincing drama.
Other candidates stood out for their artistry in earlier repertoire. Second prize winner Andrei IoniŠ£Äƒ of Romania, who plays a 1671 Giovanni Rogeri cello, invested Beethoven’s Fourth Sonata with beautifully shaped phrasing and a searing quality that set his performance apart from those of his colleagues. He also made a complete musical statement with Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata.
Ella van Poucke, a student at the Kronberg Academy who received a special prize for an outstanding performance, maintained a smooth, singing line from top to bottom in Beethoven’s Sonata no.3 and brought an effective edge to her sound in Schnittke’s First Sonata. Both IoniŠ£Äƒ and van Poucke drew on their long relationships with their respective pianists – Naoko Sonoda, who studied the University of the Arts where IoniŠ£Äƒ is a student, and Nicolas van Poucke, Ella’s brother. Other cellists including Johannes Gray, one of two North American semi-finalists, were not as comfortable on stage. He nevertheless gave a highly idiomatic account of Kodály’s B minor Sonata op.8.
In the end it was Frenchman Aurélien Pascal who took home the €15,000 Grand Prix as well as two other prizes – deservedly so, for he had demonstrated an unparalleled level of virtuosity and musical intuition throughout. From Poulenc’s Sonata for Piano and Cello to Popper’s Fantasy on a Little Russian Song (a signature Feuermann work), he commanded attention from the outset. In the finals with the Kammerakademie Potsdam he had no problem taking the reins in the Schumann Concerto while indulging in a range of dynamic shadings. In the Toch Concerto he brought the orchestra’s musicians to a level of intensity unseen in the performances by his fellow competitors IoniŠ£Äƒ and Enderle, now blending with the twelve–piece chamber orchestra’s expressionist textures, now etching out a polished line.
In addition to the competition itself, the event also staged house concerts at various locations in Berlin and masterclasses with Wiesel, Geringas and others. The competition may have to work harder if it is to extend its reach outside of Continental Europe – which, given Feuermann’s own story as an expatriated Jew, should be a priority – but the competition in his name is a fitting homage to the instrument which he elevated to new heights.
Grand Prix; Special Prize for the interpretation of Ernst Toch’s Concerto; Audience Prize: Aurélien Pascal, 19 (France)
Second Prize: Andrei IoniŠ£Äƒ, 20 (Romania)
Third Prize: Chiara Enderle, 22 (Switzerland)
Young Musician’s Prize: Minji Kim, 19 (South Korea)
Special Prize for the interpretation of the commissioned work: Valentino Worlitzsch, 25 (Germany)
Special Prize for an outstanding performance: Ella van Poucke, 20 (Netherlands); Bruno Philippe, 21 (France); Simone Drescher, 24 (Germany)
Photo: Dan Hannen