The Continuing Ciompi Legacy
by William Thomas Walker
Throughout all the myriad personnel changes since its founding by Giorgio Ciompi in 1965, the Ciompi String Quartet of Duke University has remained the Triangle's most consistent classical ensemble. A deep cornucopia of the quartet repertory has been presented--much of Mozart's best, rather less (unfortunately) of Haydn, a full Beethoven cycle in the 1980s, much of the Romantics such as Dvorak, Schubert and Brahms, and a healthy amount of contemporary music. The ensemble has embraced not only established 20th century classics by Bartók, Prokofiev, the Second Viennese School and some Shostakovich but also offered--and offers--world premieres of specially commissioned works. Indeed both last season and this have been planned with world premieres on each of the four subscription concerts.
Because composer Malcolm Peyton was not able to finish his Second String Quartet in time for it to be rehearsed last spring, its world premiere was rescheduled for this season's first full concert, given on September 29 in Reynolds Theater on Duke University's main campus. Peyton has multiple Triangle connections. I had already heard his First String Quartet (1991-93) when I bought an all-Peyton CD (Centaur CRC 2327) that featured a performance by the Borromeo String Quartet who had inspired, commissioned and premiered it. Durham native Nicholas Kitchen, the Borromeo's leader, is one of Giorgio Ciompi's most famous students. In addition to the surprisingly lovely and lyrical quartet, the CD also contains "Songs from Walt Whitman" and the warm and appealing Suite Nocturnale, played by Ciompi Quartet violist Jonathan Bagg, a student of Peyton at the New England Conservatory of Music and the dedicatee of the piece. The composer studied with Edward T. Cone, Roger Sessions, Irving Fine, Wolfgang Fortner, and Aaron Copland. He has served as Co-chair of the Composition Department at the N.E.C., and his music is published by Boelke Bomart-Mobart.
Though not as lyrical as his First Quartet, the Second Quartet was very warmly received by a large and attentive audience that demanded at least three curtain calls for both the Ciompi Quartet and the composer. The Saturday performance was the official world premiere but the piece had been given the previous Thursday on the Ciompi's invaluable "First Course" series at the Duke Museum of Art. I missed this but a colleague shared notes on that reading and the remarks the composer offered there. New works benefit immeasurably from several hearings and the "preview" concerts at the DUMA are great adjuncts to the Quartet's regular presentations. Seven short movements make up the quartet. The three-minute Prelude opens with a lyrical solo, played on these occasions by second violinist Hsiao-mei Ku. This was followed by the sequential entrances of leader Eric Pritchard, violist Jonathan Bagg and cellist Fred Raimi. The tempo slowed at the end and this section faded quietly. The following five movements are, according to the composer, "spin-off 'variations' that react to the music of the Prelude," and then "the themes come back in the last piece, Postlude, in a slightly broader version." The first violin opened "Harliquinade with Waltz," followed by scurrying strings. The waltz-like theme for first violin was lovely, as were some gentle cello pizzicatos. There was an ethereal quality to the quiet and introspective Intermezzo, which featured extended muted strings. The Marcia Fantasia featured extensive parts for violist Bagg. The last three movements, Tango, Soliloquies and Postlude, are played without pause. My colleague noted that Bagg referred to the works' "settled and settling" ending. I look forward to hearing it again and hope that Peyton's First Quartet will also be given locally.
The concert opened with a fine performance of Beethoven's String Quartet No. 4, one of his passionate C minor works that has always been one of my favorites. I have long relished the Ciompi Quartet's Beethoven performances, in which the players are invariably fully engaged with the music even when not technically flawless. I have heard more than one precise and empty run-through by more than one well-known and much-recorded ensemble. Saturday's performance had a wonderfully mellow string blend but the anguished heartfelt cry of Pritchard's precise first violin exuded passion too. Through the many episodes of tricky string articulations and exposed high notes the CQ gave a very satisfying performance that provided once again healing balm for a troubled time.The concert ended with a fine and distinctive performance of Schubert's great String Quintet in C, D.956, in which the quartet was ably joined by guest cellist Norman Fischer, a founding member of the late Concord String Quartet, well known for its promotion of contemporary music. Over some thirty years of concert going, I'm sure I have heard some forty performance of this huge and justly beloved work. Composer Gian Carlo Menotti always insisted that it end his Spoleto Festival's chamber music programs. I have heard only about two really bad performances, done by ad hoc and under-rehearsed ensembles. Some have espoused traditional "Viennese Gemütlichkeit"--relaxed and luxuriating in the wealth of Schubert's endless melodies. Others have exploited every possible amount of drama. On this occasion, the foursome and their guest used a mix of the two approaches. This was most evident in the opening of the first movement, in which the first portion was almost over the top in its aggressive intensity. In contrast to the stormy opening, the gentle music was even more laid back than usual. Most of the rest was more conventional with lingering quiet pizzicatos and deft string phrasing.