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It was 40 years ago last July that violinist Giorgio Ciompi launched a string quartet at Duke University. Saturday night’s season-opener concert was a tribute to the past and a demonstration of the present strength of the ensemble that bears his name. Although there have been several changes of personnel during the Ciompi’s career, over the last ten years, with the addition of first violinist Eric Pritchard, the quartet has stabilized.
It was a festive evening, with four of the former quartet members present to participate in the musicmaking. The large crowd – Reynolds Theater was nearly full – obviously was rooting for the home team, which did not disappoint. The program was preceded by a short screening of pictures and text (too small and too fast to read!!) recalling the 40 years of the Quartet’s history.
Haydn has been one of the Ciompi’s favorite composers; just about every year they explore another of his many wonderful quartets. This year it was the turn of the Quartet in D Major, Op.20 No.4. By the time Haydn composed it in 1772, he had standardized the classical string quartet form to reflect his goal of “a conversation among equals,” rather than the old fashioned concept of work for the first violin with string accompaniment.
From the opening bars it was clear that the Ciompi was in top form. This was no “Papa Haydn” performance but rather an exuberant, youthful romp. Noteworthy was the tenderness of the playing in the slow theme and variations second movement, especially the second variation, where Fred Raimi’s cello sang a tender love song. In the Finale, Presto e scherzando, Haydn must have expected his colleagues to give their absolute best, and then some. The Quartet admirably met the challenges of constant changes in harmony, rhythm and breakneck speed,
The Ciompi Quartet prides itself on its commissions for new works, many of which it has also recorded. One of the most recent, premiered in April 2003, was Paul Schoenfield’s String Quartet No.2, subtitled “Memoirs.” This intensely personal work is full of pain and grim personal memories, a far cry from Schoenfield’s usual acerbic, madcap tone. The work was a mood dampener after the exuberant Haydn. The five movements, marked Aubade, Nigun (melody), Ballade, Soliloquy and In Memoriam, use several themes taken from Jewish liturgy, and, in the last movement, allusions to quartets by Jewish composers Erwin Schulhoff and Alfred Schnittke who suffered through one or another of the hells of the 20th century. Only in the middle movement, Ballade, does Schoenfield’s usual witty style prevail; yet even there it has the joyless undertone of Galgenhumor (hangman’s humor).
The Ciompi performed the work with the same energy as the Haydn. Perhaps a little more muting of the spirit would have been warranted, especially in the first and last movements. And there was a not-so-minor train wreck in the middle of the fast Ballade.
After intermission the stage was suddenly full. Joining the current quartet were four former members: second violinists Claudia Warburg (1973-1981) and Claudia Bloom (1981-1991), violist George Taylor (1979-1986) and cellist Sharon Robinson (1973-1974) to perform Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet Op.20. This work frequently gets less than a stellar performance, because it requires the coordination of the personnel of two string quartets who rarely afford enough rehearsal time to fully coordinate and balance the eight players. But not at Saturday’s performance. The four visitors were on hand long enough to polish the performance to perfection. It simply sizzled with energy worthy of a masterpiece by the 16-year-old genius. It also demonstrated how many good players were members of the Ciompi over the years.