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Kirby Horton Hall in the Sarah P. Duke Gardens is one of the area’s finest intimate venues for the performance of chamber music. Its acoustics are superb while the hall’s exposed wooden beams and the distant view of the gardens behind the performers delight the eye. Concerts held there are almost always sellouts as was the case for this first of three concerts of Ciompi Quartet Presents Summer Chamber Music in Duke Garden. This concert was to feature Ciompi Quartet members first violinist Eric Pritchard and violist Jonathan Bagg with North Carolina Symphony principal cellist Bonnie Thron in the Goldberg Variations, S. 988 of Johann Sebastian Bach. However Pritchard injured a finger on his bow hand. Thron and two of her N.C. Symphony colleagues had toured the region last season playing the Bach piece. Her colleague, violinist Carol Chung, proved a very accomplished substitute.
The Goldberg Variations is an aria with 30 variations that Bach intended for his student Johann Theophil Goldberg to play on a two-manual clavicembalo (harpsichord) for Count Carl von Keyserlingk, of Dresden. It is a myth that Bach composed the work because Goldberg’s patron suffered from insomnia. In the mid-1970s, noted violinist and conductor Dmitri Sitkovetsky arranged the keyboard work for string trio. Instead of using the aria’s melody, Bach chose to use the first eight notes of the bass line and chord progression as the basis of the variations.
Eric Pritchard preceded this concert with extensive comments and selected excerpts to draw attention to important aspects of the variations. The work is played all the way through with no breaks but the printed program had the variations grouped in threes. Pritchard drew attention to the fact every third variation is a canon. The canons follow an ascending pattern ranging from the two higher voices in unison to the ninth. The pattern is broken after the ninth by Bach using the form of a quodlibet, a popular musical joke juxtaposing two different melodies. The two German folksongs are “I have been long away from you, come closer” and “Cabbage and turnips have driven me away.” Pritchard said the transcribing of Bach’s multipart keyboard writing to three strings made the complexity much easier to follow.
Chung, Bagg, and Thron turned in a superb performance with details carefully balanced within an overarching conception. Intonation, phrasing, and rhythm were excellent. String tone was full and rich. There was a broad palette of string color making for a particularly lovely performance. The strands of Bach’s multi-part scoring were easy to follow. There was a lively sense of give-and-take between the players. This performance had an air of spontaneity, almost like it was being improvised. There was nothing dry or pedantic about it.