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The Ciompi Quartet opened its new Duke Performances season with a meaty program of diverse works, some sparkling and delightful, others challenging and dark, but all played brilliantly with Ciompi’s lively personality shining through. The group deserves particular credit for its thoughtful, unusual musical selections; the combination of accessible Mozart, powerfully emotional Shostakovich, spare and brainy Webern, and a rarely-heard Smetana made for a rich, satisfying evening of music from across 200 years.
(The evening also happened to include one of the odder episodes seen at a classical concert in some time, but we’ll get to that in a moment.)
Violinists Eric Pritchard and Hsiao-mei Ku, violist Jonathan Bagg and cellist Fred Raimi began the evening with a thoroughly engaging performance of Mozart’s String Quartet No. 20 in D major (“Hoffmeister”). Arguably not one of Mozart’s most daring compositions, in the Ciompi’s hands it was nimble, charming and, of course, crowd-pleasingly melodic. The group’s lively interaction – watching the faces of the Ciompi players as they trade parts among themselves is always one of the joys of seeing them live – was a perfect appetizer for the more challenging music to come.
It’s easy to hear the sadness, loss, and physical pain in Shostakovich’s late string quartets, but their reputation as “difficult listening” is more than a little unfair. The rapidly shifting textures, the unusual sounds Shostakovich coaxes from the instruments, the obvious heart-wrenching emotion, all of these and more should make these works accessible to any concert-goer with an ear even slightly open to darker music. This is particularly true for 1973’s String Quartet No. 14 in F-sharp minor, Op. 142, which offers a surprising number of peaceful, achingly beautiful moments, and is perhaps the most accessible of the late quartets.
The Ciompi Quartet performed it exquisitely. The composer’s emphasis on the cello gave Raimi much of the spotlight, particularly in the first movement, but the unusually spare nature of the work provided all four members with marvelously odd paired or solo passages throughout. The group’s intensity at the dizzying beginning of the third movement was astonishing, and didn’t let up during the quieter passages or the surprisingly gentle, mournful end. It was a stunning piece of music performed with both brains and heart, and the highlight of the evening.
It would be silly to argue that Anton Webern’s Six Bagatelles for String Quartet, Op. 9, an extremely concise atonal gem from 1913, isn’t “difficult listening” for most people, but it was an inspired choice to start the second half of the program. Written in part to explore ideas of contrast in his mentor Schoenberg’s style, the Bagatelles use silence and brevity in captivating ways; in Ciompi’s hands they had a warmth and liveliness not often associated with early atonal music. I found them highly listenable, and even heard a bit of humor in the abrupt bowing, plucking and sudden silences.
It was at this point that an embarrassed Fred Raimi stood up to announce he’d apparently left his music for the final piece of the evening, Bedrich Smetana’s rarely performed String Quartet No. 2 in D minor, in another building. This put a rather unusual spin on the rest of the evening. After a bit of confusion it was decided to send Yoram Youngerman, artistic director of the Mallarme Youth Chamber Orchestra, to get the music while we waited. Someone on stage had the idea to play the Webern Bagatelles for us again. I was delighted. How often do you get to hear early 20th century atonal music in a chamber setting? Their oddness was just as fascinating the second time around.
The evening evolved temporarily into an informal question-and-answer session, which actually felt quite pleasant. Judging from the tone of the room, many others felt the same. The Ciompi Quartet has certainly earned more than enough forbearance after all these years of excellent music. About twenty minutes after the initial announcement, and just a minute or two after the quartet had decided to go ahead and start the Smetana anyway, with Raimi using a less-than-ideal score, the music arrived. Raimi stopped the group, grabbed the music and Ciompi began Smetana’s second string quartet again.
It was worth the wait, although it might have been better had Ciompi taken a couple of minutes to allow everyone – audience and performer alike – to get back into the concert hall mindset before starting the final piece of the evening. At times it felt rushed. Still, Ciompi rallied nicely and the String Quartet No. 2, composed late in Smetana’s life, long after he became deaf, turned out to be yet another interesting, unusual choice, played with gusto and getting a favorable reaction from the audience. Jonathan Bagg’s program note told us that Smetana, struggling with memory problems, “made his limitations a virtue” by abandoning broad themes and long developments in favor of a more concentrated, more agile series of short movements, which one could certainly hear as the piece unfolded. It might have sparked some interesting parallels with the Webern had the lost music episode not intervened, but was certainly absorbing enough to interest me in re-hearing it. Perhaps Ciompi can offer it again sometime.