The spirit of violinist Giorgio Ciompi (1918-83) may have hovered near during the third concert of the Ciompi String Quartet‘s season. The ensemble still bears the name of its founder who established the quartet in 1965. The current players consist of violinists Eric Pritchard and Hsiao-Mei Ku, violist Jonathan Bagg, and cellist Fred Raimi. Raimi is the only member who played under Ciompi’s leadership. This delightful Duke Performances program had another connection with the founder. Nicholas Kitchen, the founder and leader of the Borromeo String Quartet, was one of Ciompi’s last students. The joint concert allowed for the enterprising programming of two octets. In addition to Kitchen, the Borromeo Quartet consists of second violinist Kristopher Tong, violist Mai Motobuchi, and cellist Yeesun Kim.

The String Quartet in D, Op. 20, No. 4 by Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) was an ideal vehicle to demonstrate the strengths of “the Father of the String Quartet” as well as the technical and musical insights of the Ciompi String Quartet alone. Raimi contributed the apt and brief program note. After a beginning with all four players in unison, Haydn quickly puts each of the players through prominent solos as well as duos and trios. Harmonies are bold; use of silences is remarkable as are the composer’s typical “jokes” such as having the first theme return in the wrong key or ending the first movement with a false reprise. The slow movement is a set of four variations. In the second variation, Haydn assigns the high melody to the cello and the bass line to the viola. Folk elements the composer absorbed in his childhood are exploited in the “gypsy style” minuet abounding in cross rhythms and rollicking syncopations. The finale is marked “very fast, jokingly” which aptly describes the high jinks and unfettered sense of fun. The Ciompi musicians turned in a stylish performance, beautifully balanced, with no technical difficulties. Burnished string sonorities were combined with clear, crisp articulation in the fastest passages.

The two string quartet ensembles took it in turn to lead the two octets. The Ciompi led the ever popular Octet in E-flat, Op. 20 by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), the work of the eighteen-year old composer that never losses the freshness of its invention. Raimi’s program note drew attention to two important aspects of this score: the composer “does not overuse grand tutte moments” and he “creates extremely soft, intimate textures.” Mendelssohn is the supreme master of weaving the “filigree, gossamer” sound world of fairies, and the fleet Scherzo is a perfect example. The blending and precise ensemble between the Ciompi and Borromeo players was superb. Rhythms were vital and the dynamic range and shading were splendid.  

The Borromeo Quartet moved front stage to lead the rarely heard or recorded Octet in C, Op. 7 by the nineteen-year old Georges Enescu (1881-1955). Enescu had an extensive career as composer, violinist, and conductor. His photographic musical memory was legendary. The Amadeus String Quartet recalled hours spent with Enescu who discussed the interpretation of Beethoven’s Late Quartets, demonstrating points at the piano solely from memory. In his memoirs, Enescu said “With the String Octet I felt that I was becoming myself.” It is a very original work within a Romantic, tonal system abounding in fresh sonorities and its melodies treated in the cyclic approach of Franck and D’Indy. It consists of four movements. Besides the grand theme played in unison at the opening of the piece, there are a plethora of other melodies constantly seeking attention. Enescu wanted as few as possible pauses between movements to give a strong unified feeling of the sonata form spanning the some 41 minutes of the piece. The scoring of Op. 7 is even more diverse and wide-ranging than the better known Mendelssohn. It ranges from unison sections for all eight players and unusual pairings or combinations, to extended, ravishing solos for violin and viola. Even during tutte sections, the cellos are often divided with the second cello playing an ostinato bass line supporting melodies sung by the other strings. The Borromeo and Ciompi Quartets turned in an electrifying and ravishing performance with a full, warm string tone and beautifully coordinated ensemble. Extended, glowing solos were given by violinist Kitchen and violist Motobuchi. This wonderful score has long been under recorded and this wonderful performance ought to be committed to CD.