The Ciompi Quartet performed the second concert of their Duke Performances season at Baldwin Auditorium on Duke campus Sunday evening. An impressive program of Schubert, Webern, and Schoenberg filled the evening. This season celebrates the 50th anniversary of the founding the quartet (the members have changed in that time period). An excellent article telling the quartet’s history, written by our own John Lambert, appears here. Sunday evening’s guest artist, soprano Tony Arnold, joined the quartet for the final piece, Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet. The entire program was an aural treat and a musical snapshot of the transition to atonality in western classical music.

Appearing on the program were two works by Anton von Webern, “Langsamer Satz” (1905) and Six Bagatelles (1911-1913). A student and good friend of Schoenberg, Webern began his career emulating Schoenberg’s rich, expressionist musical style. At the start of the concert Sunday evening, “Langsamer Satz” was lush and warm: expressionist writing at its peak. The Ciompi Quartet played with passion and beautiful balance.  Baldwin Auditorium is a dream for chamber music; I could hear each instrument clearly, a mark of the hall and the quartet.       

A concert featuring Schoenberg’s epic Second String Quartet is difficult to program.  One option is to choose other works with voice, highlighting vocal chamber music. That choice usually fails, with the other works sounding trite and flippant in comparison to the Schoenberg. Another is to program other Schoenberg pieces, going full force with his early style, an intensely beautiful, but almost oppressive expressionism, his later style, an atonal ear lashing, or some mix of the two. One leaves feeling like he’s been punished and worse, not appreciating the awesomeness of his Second String Quartet. The Ciompi chose a brilliant approach by offering a musical theory and history lesson of sorts. Webern and Schoenberg connect easily. However, the pieces chosen literally paint the tonal picture of Vienna right before the famous shift to atonality, the famous shift itself, and the immediate aftermath. Throwing Schubert’s famous “Rosamunde” string quartet into the middle of Schoenberg and Webern is not only an aural massage, but offers a different picture of Vienna.

Ciompi played the Schubert in the way that all Schubert should be played – without getting bogged down in the histrionics. They allowed Schubert’s beautiful music to speak for itself. The piece was a story; each movement was elegant with a distinct character. Eric Pritchard deftly danced the fine line of the first violinist. At times his sound soared and at others blended completely, expertly weaving his line in and out with respect to his role and his colleagues. I loved the quartet’s choice of tempi; the second movement (Andante) walked with purpose rather than meandered. The last movement (Allegro moderato) contrasted prim and proper with fleet and fluttery, highlighting the quartet’s virtuosic gifts.    

After intermission, the quartet presented Six Bagatelles, a noteworthy work on the program for two reasons. One, it represents the aftermath of the tonal shift – this is atonality; and two, it represents the real voice of Anton von Webern, fragmented and sparse, yet highly expressive and detailed. The short work (a performance lasts no more than 4 minutes) had a mix of faster and slower movements. The Ciompi Quartet performed the slower of the movements with grace and ease. I felt the Quartet was playing as one organism in those movements, responding to each other, revealing the humor and quiet beauty of Webern’s writing. However, the faster movements proved to be a struggle for the Quartet. I didn’t hear the cohesion, and while those movements – a mere two minutes of music – were probably the most difficult on the program, I wish they had trusted each other more and just played the gestures, not overly concerned with accuracy.     

The evening closed with one of my favorite pieces, and one of the most important pieces in musical history. The revolutionary aspects of this String Quartet are too many to expound upon in this review. So, in a nutshell, never before had a soprano appeared with a string quartet, and the last movement literally represents the monumental shift in all of Western music from tonality – a harmonic system strictly adhered to by every living composer – to serialized atonality, the complete disregard of said system. Schoenberg alludes to the shift in the first line of the soprano part of the last movement set to poetry by Stefan George: “I feel air from another planet.” Wow.    

I loved the performance by the Ciompi Quartet and new music superstar soprano, Arnold. Schoenberg held the first movement together with a motive introduced by the viola. Each player brought out the obsessive development of this motive all the while adhering to the lush and stormy mood of the movement. The second movement had so many expertly played character changes I couldn’t keep them straight. From neurotic and twittering to bombastic, then serene, the quartet chose their sound and technique well to reflect the changes. Arnold stood to join the quartet in the last two movements, set to “Litanei/Litany” and “Entrückung/Rapture” from George’s collection The Seventh Ring. Schoenberg started this piece as a tribute to his wife, and in the midst of writing learned of her betrayal of him through an affair. The language and music of this movement are full of anguish. The words are dark, desperate with Arnold pleading for relief, wailing over loss, dropping over an octave of the vocal range on the word “Liebe/love.” The last movement opens with highly chromatic, aimlessly wandering tonal material (which happens to be an almost pure 12 tone row). The muted strings twinkled and seamlessly passed material back and forth until Arnold entered with the famous line. The stunning text painting of Schoenberg, beautifully performed by Arnold and the Quartet, is a long goodbye to tonality, with increasingly atonal lines painting the future – “I am dissolved in swirling sound.” The breathtaking ending, a final resolve to two measures of F# major is hushed and reverent. 

The premiere of this piece was an overwhelming failure. Audiences hated the work and couldn’t understand the composer’s new harmonic language. The audience Sunday night loved the performance, giving the Ciompi Quartet and Arnold a standing ovation. I wish more people had been there to hear this remarkable performance, and I hope more come to the next performance on February 20, in Baldwin, featuring the Kyo-Shin-An artists.