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It is difficult to fully capture in words the breadth of the Ciompi Quartet’s musical mastery and expression. Witnessing their performances and simultaneously attempting to consider the complexity of the music can be a mesmerizing experience, sometimes even overwhelming. The Ciompi Quartet’s Concert No. 3 was as such – dense and fascinating works of Shostakovich and Brahms shone through the quartet, especially with featured guests, violinist Nicholas Kitchen and cellist Yeesun Kim.
Before performing the most melodically complex music, however, Kitchen’s own intriguing arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E-flat was played. The idea of transcribing organ music for a string quartet is unusual, but it proved to be a lovely piece. Bach’s regal dotted rhythms were forefront in the texture of the Prelude, brought to life by strong and precise bowing. Imitative phrases were distributed to all four instruments, with a sense of balance that was quite calming. Fred Raimi,cello, and Jonathan Bagg, viola, were often paired melodically in the Prelude, but in the Fugue all the instrumentalists carried their independent fugal phrases simultaneously. These movements were a decisive opener of the concert – introducing the Quartet’s style and expression before delving into even more complex and emotional music.
Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 2 in A was an immediate contrast. The Overture begins with an emphatic and prominent melody, played first by Eric Pritchard on the violin. Alternating between consonance and dissonance, this movement is an intriguing introduction to the following three movements. Near the end of the movement, just before returning to the original melody, both Pritchard and Hsiao-mei Ku were playing at the extreme top of a violin’s range but still maintained the stern quality of the melody. The second movement, "Recitative and Romance," showcased Pritchard’s ability to draw emotion and lyricism from a difficult melody full of unusual intervals. This melody is simply played over suspended chords in the other three instruments, which set the tone for each phrase. Pritchard communicated both tenderness and harshness at different points in the movement, which was quite fascinating. The lilting Waltz movement began with Raimi playing a capricious and unusual-sounding melody. Despite the many simultaneous textures in this movement, the four instrumentalists were in perfect alignment. Both their individual and collaborative expression were s a joy to watch. In the Finale (Theme with Variations), the players seemed ready to leap out of their chairs while playing, especially Bagg. In this growing tempestuous movement, the original theme is traded amongst the instruments, and each player has the chance to interpret the theme. This movement builds to a climax, but ends with sweeping and solemn chords – a strongly emotional ending that brought many audience members to their feet, at the end of the first half of the concert.
Kitchen and Kim, both members of the acclaimed Borromeo String Quartet, New England Conservatory of Music’s Ensemble-in-Residence, are familiar friends of the Ciompi Quartet who joined the group to perform Brahm’s String Sextet No. 2 in G. The Sextet was just fascinating to watch, as the artists performed the beautiful and complex movements. The Allegro non troppo begins with a suspended wavering note first played by Bagg but traded among the other instruments throughout the entire movement. This movement builds by trading romantic melody patterns in an almost fugal style. It was a privilege to watch these six instrumentalists interact with each other through the music.
The Scherzo movement begins with a sense of consonance, but then dives into complex polyphony. This movement’s most reoccurring theme is an expressive violin melody against pizzicato in the cello. A highlight of this movement is the sudden dramatic shift to a lively dance, reminiscent of Hungarian styles. Besides the musical shift, it was remarkable how each musician changed characters here – each seemed even more charismatic and joyful, especially cellist Kim. The third movement, Adagio, begins slowly and focused, and only grows in volume with the entrance of the cellos. Here, the phrasing was in the forefront, and each phrase was marvelously shaped around the melody’s direction. This movement has the least dissonance of all, but several unexpected chord progressions kept members of the audience on their toes. The final movement, Poco allegro, begins with an accented melody hidden within rapid bowing motion. This movement is rather playful, noticeably emulated by Kitchen. A section of fugue texture, begun by intricate viola passages, is almost humorous when the melody is segmented and echoed by all of the musicians. The ending was absolutely breathless, with Pritchard’s melody and Ku’s countermelody against electric pizzicato building to a gripping and unified finish.