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The Ciompi Quartet ended its 2003-4 season with a marvelous program, presented in Duke's Nelson Music Room on April 16. Atypically, there were no premieres, but the 20th century was nonetheless represented with a strong and rarely-heard work, Shostakovich's Quartet No. 9.
The program opened with Mendelssohn's Quartet in E Minor, Op. 44/2. It's not one of the composer's better-known scores, and one reason for that is articulated in cellist Fred Raimi's program note - basically, Mendelssohn made it a top-heavy piece by pouring most of the drama into the first movement. Still, it's "classic" Mendelssohn, with long, singing lines that underscored the overall theme of the CQ's offerings this year, "A Season to Sing About." The scherzo, which comes second, is one of the master's most amazing creations in that form, and it hints at the well-known one in the Octet and in the incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream .
Normally when one thinks about other music during a concert, it means one of two things - the programmed offerings are boring or the performance leaves something to be desired. During this concert, thoughts of other works frequently came to mind - but the reason, this time, was that the pieces offered were large and often almost orchestral in scope. That was the case in the Mendelssohn, in which the foursome often seemed larger than life, in altogether positive terms. Nelson is a congenial space with fine acoustics. The artists - violinists Eric Pritchard and Hsiao-mei Ku, violist Jonathan Bagg, and cellist Raimi - played with their customary spirit, enthusiasm, and incisiveness. Their projection, and their delineation of solo sections and lines within the fabric of the music, seemed better than ever.
Beethoven's Große Fuge, Op. 133, is another work that is larger than life, or that seems so, thanks perhaps to performances by string orchestras that linger in the memory. Hearing it played by a quartet is still the preferred way, and the CQ made a strong case for it, generally minimizing the sometimes abrupt transitions between its several sections. It is, as Bagg's notes remind us, a work of immense technical difficulty. That these fine artists realized it so well is a tribute to their excellence. That the audience sensed the importance of the performance and recalled the players for a second round of bows merely underscored the significance of their accomplishments.
The grand finale was Shostakovich's Quartet in E-Flat, Op. 117, composed in 1964. As elsewhere during this program, it often brought to mind his larger works, including the symphonies and, particularly in the last section, the first Violin Concerto. Again, this stemmed from the CQ's gripping and consistently engaging reading, which reflected the somewhat schizophrenic nature of the piece - and of the composer. Duke's resident string quartet has undertaken many noteworthy projects, over the years, enriching our cultural lives again and again. A Shostakovich retrospective would be most welcome.
There was a post-concert reception, open to all attendees, that allowed members of the audience to talk with the players and to bid them farewell before their trip to California, for which they left the next morning.