No hint of a shadow covered the joyful music chosen by the Ciompi Quartet for the ensemble's second concert of the 2013-14 season, presented by Duke Performances in the gorgeously renovated Baldwin Auditorium on the East Campus of Duke University. Works by Brahms (1833-97) and Beethoven (1770-1827) sandwiched a contemporary kaleidoscopic piece by Joel Feigin (b.1951). The members of the quartet are first violinist Eric Pritchard, second violinist Hsiao-mei Ku, violist Jonathan Bagg, and cellist Fred Raimi.
Brahms sweated bullets for a long time preceding his composition of his first concertos, symphonies, and first two string quartets because of the towering standard established by Beethoven. None of this was the case for the creation of his favorite (and mine), the String Quartet No. 3, in B-flat, Op. 67, composed during a summer holiday at Ziegelhausen, near Heidelberg. It was an especially relaxed time for the composer. Unlike later works, there is no hint of the autumnal or bittersweet regret about it. Folkdance-influenced pieces aside, it is one of Brahms' most joyous works. The strings evoke the sounds and rhythms of hunting horn calls at the opening, followed by cross-rhythms with a jolly dance tune. The more seriously-toned second movement features a tranquil theme for the first violin, harshly interrupted before a fuller accompaniment of the opening melody. Brahms called the third movement, Agitato, "the tenderest and most impassioned movement I have ever written." Muted violins and cello are set against an unmuted viola, singing with passion. The finale is cast as a theme with eight variations, a form at which Brahms excelled. Over its course there is an assertive push between the first violin and viola, with the viola (the composer's favorite string instrument) winning; and in the seventh variation comes a return of the hunting horn motif that opened the quartet. The Ciompi Quartet turned in a bright and burnished account with superb efforts from each player. Bagg's extensive solos were delightful.
Composer Joel Feigin spoke from the stage about his Mosaic in Two Panels for String Quartet. He said he had composed a string quartet in the standard four-movement structure. While he liked the result, he felt it was a bit old-fashioned. His wife suggested he make multiple copies of the score, toss them in the air, and reassemble the scattered parts, hence the name "Mosaic." From the program note, it appears this work was premiered in Russia as Mosaic in Two Panels for String Orchestra by the Chamber Orchestra Kremlin under Mikhail Rachlevsky, a group that has toured this region several times. Panel I is marked "Adagio; Allegro grazioso e scherzando; Allegro scorrevole," and Panel II is designated "Adagio; Allegro vivace; Allegro grazioso."
The abrupt changes at first hearing reminded me of Charles Ives' juxtaposing hymns and band marches but here the composer uses different parts of movements instead. The scoring is tonal and often quite delightful once you get used to the sudden shifts in the material. The Ciompi players rose to the challenge of this roulette-like score, brilliantly taking every sudden twist flawlessly.
In the finale, first violinist Pritchard retired from the stage to Baldwin's balcony, allowing Hsiao-mei Ku to shine in the many violin-dominated movements of the Septet in E-flat, Op. 20 (1820) by Beethoven. This six-movement work is very much modeled upon Mozart's many serenades that were originally played as high-class background music for parties of the nobility. The players formed a hollow V-shape with Ku, Bagg, and Raimi on the left, and with three guests – clarinetist Allan Ware, bassoonist Saxon Rose, and French horn player Rachel Niketopoulos – opposite. Double-bassist Michael Ashton anchored the vertex.
Niketopoulos is a member of the NC Symphony, and Ashton is a member of the Greensboro Symphony. Beethoven gives every player delightful solos. Ku played the many extended violin sections superbly, as did clarinetist Ware since his instrument takes the place of a violin. Niketopoulos's horn playing was magnificent, whether showy or very subtle at a hushed dynamic. All the players were clearly having a great time and fully conveyed Beethoven's high spirits.
The quartet's next concert will be in Raleigh on November 10. For details, click here.