The Ciompi Quartet, whose members are actively engaged in our community in so many ways that one must occasionally wonder when they manage to prepare their main programs, began its formal series on October 5 with a well-attended concert in Reynolds Theatre on the West Campus of Duke University. This room does not convey the feelings of intimacy and warmth found in the ensemble's principal venue, the Nelson Music Room, on East Campus, but that space was occupied by other artists, and as it happened, the turnout was so good that all the quartet fans could not have been accommodated there. This is good, and it speaks volumes about the importance of the Ciompi Quartet and the high artistic standards its public have come, routinely, to expect.
There was nothing "routine" about the program or its realization, although seeing it on paper, one might, wrongly, have shrugged. Haydn is often used to open quartet concerts, and sometimes the results are as predictable as the oft'-encountered Handel groups used by vocalists as warm-up exercises. Soprano Susan Dunn's recent recital (reviewed by CVNC) proved a refreshing exception to this, and the Ciompi's Haydn - in this instance, the last work in this form completed by the Master, the Quartet in F, H.III:82, sometimes dubbed "Lobkowitz" (which was the only significant historical bit omitted in cellist Fred Raimi's otherwise outstanding note) - was exceptional. This was a no-nonsense reading, bright, forceful, incisive and overflowing with charm and wit, marred only by a momentary passing pitch sag at one point. In this ensemble's hands, the result was an exhilarating romp, and the crowd responded accordingly.
Bartók's Sixth Quartet is one of his most accessible chamber scores (along with the Second, as a member of the audience noted, at the post-concert reception, provided by the Friends of the Ciompi Quartet). I'll confess that I find the Bartók quartets among the most challenging in the repertoire, although I've been "working" on them for (dare I 'fess it?) around 45 years. That's more of an investment than some people might be prepared to make (it goes with the territory, a tractor salesperson could say), but it is at last starting to pay off, and the Ciompi's performance was, to these ears, one of the finest yet heard. The piece made sense, was at no point off-putting, and - perhaps for the first time - the composer's fragmentary quotations from Hungarian folksongs (sometimes called Gypsy music) were strikingly revealed. Violist Jonathan Bagg was in his element with the rich solo at the start of the first movement. The dramatic power of the second again and again suggested Bluebeard's Castle . And the rough-hewn, often rustic Burletta made this an ideal companion for the opening Haydn score.
After a long intermission, violinist Eric Pritchard, Bagg, and Raimi were joined by guest bassist Jairo Moreno, whose roots the program suggested are in jazz, and pianist Edmund Battersby, whose recent recital is reviewed elsewhere in these pages. (Second violinist Hsiao-mei Ku got to sit this one out.) Battersby proved to be a superb chamber artist , and the quasi-ad hoc group's reading of Schubert's "Trout" Quintet was exceptional on all counts. It may be worth noting, too, that this was the second major Schubert score heard at Duke in a single week, the Takács Quartet having played his last quartet the previous Saturday, under the auspices of the Chamber Arts Society. It would be nice to think that at least some of the folks who showed up for the Ciompi were there because they're Schubert fans. It is nice, too, to be able to report that our resident ensemble took all the repeats! The reading sparkled, bringing to mind the only recording of the score I can unreservedly recommend, the one done for MDG by members of the Leipzig String Quartet with pianist Christian Zacharias and bassist Christian Ockert. If the Ciompi had a CD of the score among its discography, we'd steer our readers to that. It was that good.
We don't normally identify page-turners, but in this case an exception must be made, for two reasons. Jane Hawkins, Duke's omnipresent pianist, did the honors, and we note this here because her return to the platform signals her continuing recovery from an accident mentioned in our review of her husband Fred Raimi's September 15 recital, and because she was mentioned in the program notes on this occasion. Speaking of program notes..., several CVNC ers carry on about them from time to time, and the note for this Schubert score is worth looking up, if it went unread, because it is so unusual and sheds so much light on the ensemble itself. Raimi penned it, and it isn't what one normally expects to find. With the author's permission, we'll end this review with a verbatim reprint. Enjoy!
Piano Quintet in A Major, Op. 114 ("Trout")
Some music series give information in their programs about the performance histories of the works being performed, e. g, "The Chicago Symphony first played this Tchaikovsky symphony in 1894 at Symphony hall with the composer conducting." We've never taken that approach with the Ciompi Quartet series, but in this case I must make reference to a previous encounter with the "Trout" Quintet. We played it (part of it, anyway) in 1983. The occasion was the movie Brainstorm and the pianist was Natalie Wood (sort of). This (partial) performance may be witnessed (though not heard) by renting the film (which has few redeeming features apart from special effects). In fact, what you will hear if you play the movie will not be the Ciompi Quartet with Natalie, but rather us playing with Jane Hawkins. Ms. Wood had studied piano as a youngster, and was confident that she could play the final variation of the "Trout" movement. We rehearsed with her once, and found that her confidence was misplaced. She could pick out the notes only at about one tenth of the speed at which they were meant to be played. But the scene in the movie (Natalie having friends over for an evening of chamber music) had to be shot. The solution was for us to make a studio tape of the music with Jane, and then to have the tape played during the scene while we pretended to play our instruments. Miming is not a natural thing for a musician. Giorgio Ciompi had a brilliant way around this problem; he waxed his bow so that he could make the complete movements of playing the violin without producing any sound. And, as he had many bows, he was able to use a cheap student model, so he could just throw it away afterward.
To continue with another bit of performance history, Edmund Battersby's relationship with the Ciompi Quartet goes back to the 1960s, when he was first a student and later a colleague of Giorgio Ciompi at Kneisel Hall in Blue Hill, Maine. He was responsible (some might say guilty) for my joining the Ciompi Quartet by recommending me to Giorgio in 1974. He has performed with us many times, and always creates a wonderful musical partnership. We are also very pleased to be joined tonight by our colleague and friend from the Music Department (theory section), Jairo Moreno.
- Fred Raimi