Nelson Auditorium, Sunday, January 16: Violin duos are such a rare species on the concert stage that you may have thought they were strictly for private consumption between violin students and their teachers. Well, there are a few out there with the public in mind, the subject of Ciompi Quartet’s first violinist Eric Pritchard and visiting violinist Katie Lansdale, formerly of UNC-G, and now on the faculty of the Hartt School of Music in Hartford, Connecticut. The violin duo presents formidable challenges of intonation and balance, especially since there is no true bass line.

It was clear from the opening bars that Lansdale and Pritchard enjoyed performing together. While we expect precision and good intonation from such veteran performers, the obvious sense of delight and fun they projected, made even the most mundane phrases appealing. They also had a sense of large musical structure that helped us grasp and appreciate a program of pieces that were mostly new to us.

To our knowledge, only one composer, the French violinist Jean-Marie Leclair (1697-1764), created a significant number of violin duos outside the field of violin pedagogy. He published two sets of six sonatas for two violins, and the one in D Major, Op.3, No.6, which opened the program, was a good example of the genre: works meant to show the virtuosic abilities of both performers. The Sonata, in the old sonata da chiesa (church sonata) form of slow-fast-slow-fast movements, deemphasized the two slow movements, which were barely a minute in length. And while the performers might have expanded these movements with elaborate ornamentation – which Lansdale and Pritchard chose not to do – the meat of the work was in the two fast movements. These involved a delightful menu of the standard Baroque fare for two instruments of equal range: imitation, playing in thirds and sixths and spirited dialogue. Because the Duo was the only non-twentieth century work on the program, the performers could have given it superficial attention as a concert opener. But Pritchard and Lansdale played as if every note was important.

Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) composed an awful lot of music, not all of it memorable. His Sonatina for Two Violins, Op.221, composed in 1940, unfortunately belongs to the latter category, a polytonal exercise that sets up so much ambiguous harmonic tension that the listener has no idea what key it will end up in – at least, we must admit, on first hearing. Even the spirited performance could not make it interesting.

Lansdale visited here together with her husband, composer Peter Alexander, who was commissioned by the Duke Department of Music to write a new work for the occasion. He joined the two violinists on an electric keyboard to perform the premiere of his Funk Shui for Two Violins and Unspecified Bass Instrument. In remarks from the stage, Alexander explained that the piece paid homage to rock legend James Brown. The work’s three movement, all named for particular styles of swinging walks, are entitle Struttin’, Amblin’ and Cruisin’. Struttin’, a cross between rock and reggae, set a short, jazzy motto for the work that recurred in the final movement. Amblin’ was composed to evoke the sound of a New Orleans funeral, and Cruisin’: “Well, James Brown would have liked it” Alexander conceived of the “unspecified bass instrument” as a kind of filler part, something like a basso continuo, with the focus on the two violins, but somehow, in this premiere performance, he seemed too reticent, playing the keyboard almost inaudibly and often remaining silent. Given the etiology of the piece, we think the bass line should have been more prominent, to provide the ubiquitous “beat” of rock to support the playfulness of the two violins.

The heart of the concert was the Sonata for Two Violins in C, Op.56, by Sergey Prokofiev. Sometime in the 1920 Prokofiev had heard a performance of a terrible Sonata for Two Violins, and decided he could do better. The result, composed in 1932, later became a favorite of famed Russian violinist David Oistrakh and his son Igor. Lansdale and Pritchard emphasized the Romantic aspects of the work, rounding out some of Prokofiev’s spikier phrases.

The program ended with Duo Caprice, from the more – but not terribly – serious side of Peter Schickele. There piece contains some swipes at serialism, but frankly, we prefer Schickele’s P.D.Q. Bach side.

Faculty recitals, which do not involve ticket sales, are an ideal venue for trying out new and unusual repertoire, and we would like to laud Pritchard for presenting us with such an unusual and satisfying afternoon.