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Ciompi Quartet: Consummate Performance of an Ideal Program

by William Thomas Walker

November 14, 2009, Durham, NC: The Ciompi Quartet, one of the Triangle's most treasured cultural resources, returned  to the venue of its birth, the Ernest Nelson Music Room in the East Duke Building on the East Campus of Duke University, hosted by Duke Performances. Founded by the renowned Italian violinist Giorgio Ciompi in 1965, the ensemble has undergone numerous personnel changes over the years although all members have been faculty members. Only current cellist Fred Raimi, who replaced Sharon Robinson, played in the quartet while it was still led by Ciompi. If I could hear one of a dozen ideal programs, this concert's menu of Mozart, Bartók, and Beethoven would have been near the top. Both violist Jonathan Bagg and Raimi contributed program notes about all three works. While Bagg's notes dwelt more on the detailed nuts and bolts of the scores, both reflected each musician's depth of experience with the pieces.

The set of six string quartets dedicated to Haydn by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) was at the center of the profound cross-pollination of creativity between the "Father" of string quartets, Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), and the younger composer. Haydn's series of quartets opened Mozart to the further possibilities of the form while the older composer was in turn further inspired by Mozart's set. The String Quartet in D minor, K. 421 (1783) is the only one of the six in a minor key and is brooding, even its cheeriest moments being haunted by a melancholy undertone. The Ciompi Quartet played it in superb classical style with well-chosen tempos, clear articulation, and ideal phrasing. A highlight was first violinist Eric Pritchard's sparkling performance of the third movement's famous trio, a playful tune above a simple pizzicato accompaniment from his colleagues.

The brilliant Fourth String Quartet (1928) of Béla Bartók received a breath-taking performance by the ensemble which combined stunning technical precision with intense musical insight. The work's special symmetrical "arch" structure was clearly presented, the first and last movements' harsh dissonances, the paired eerie scherzo-like second and third movements, surrounding the austere "night music" of the central slow movement. What a range of coloristic effects the Ciompi conjured in the fast, muted strings of the second movement and the mixture of different types of pizzicato, now plucked, now strummed combined with strings violently snapped against the fingerboard. Each player was showcased in turn in the spectral mood of the slow movement. I have never heard a better performance of this wonderful work.

Since the days of Giorgio Ciompi the quartet has done the works of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) proud. During the period of his first successor, violinist Bruce Berg, the Ciompi Quartet did a very successful complete cycle of all sixteen quartets over several seasons at Duke and at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. The current membership turned in a profound and richly satisfying interpretation of Beethoven's String Quartet in C Major, Op. 59, the third of the set of three "Razumovsky" or Middle String Quartets. Raimi's robust pizzicati opening the second movement were a delight. The ensemble brought out all of the work's larger-than-life exuberance and vitality.

With so many personnel changes maybe it is time to do another complete Beethoven cycle and/or better yet initiate a complete Shostakovich cycle too.

   
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