Chamber Music Review



The Usual Sandwich

April 21, 2007 - Durham, NC:


The Ciompi Quartet ended its season in Nelson Music Room with a fine performance of the usual sandwich: a spiky contemporary work between two favorites from the standard repertory.

Franz Schubert’s String Quartet in A minor, D.804, is familiarly known as the “Rosamunde” quartet because he used a theme from his incidental music for the play Rosamunde for the second movement Andante. It is Schubert’s first completed string quartet for professional players, that is, one not written with his family’s limited playing abilities in mind. Composed in 1824 shortly after a long hospitalization for the syphilis he had contracted two years earlier, the first three movements may reflect the composer’s dark mood and feelings of helplessness. Only in the last movement does his natural cheerfulness break through. The Ciompi had some serious intonation problems in the opening bars but quickly settled into a precise, warm performance that reflected the work’s Romantic tone.

The highlight of the evening was five movements from Moments Musicaux, Op. 44 (six movements), by the Hungarian composer György Kurtág (b.1926). Composed in 2005 on commission as a test piece for the Bordeaux International String Quartet Competition, these are miniatures that incorporate a variety of moods and virtuosic techniques. Short as they are, they give a quartet a good workout, including – with the rapidly shifting moods – turning on a dime. The Ciompi performed the work with a sure hand and a touch of wit where appropriate, especially in No. 2, “Footfalls” and No. 3, “Capriccio.” Citing insufficient time for its rehearsal, the Ciompi did not perform No. 5, “Rappel des oiseaux” (“Birdcalls”), a study in harmonics.

For the final work on the program, pianist Jane Hawkins joined the Quartet for César Franck’s Piano Quintet in F minor. For us, this heavy-handed work loses some of its appeal with every hearing, something even the Ciompi’s and Hawkins’s sensitive rendering, as well as the excellent balance between the strings and the piano, could not overcome.

One thing sorely missing from the program was program notes, usually supplied by Fred Raimi or Jonathan Bagg. Especially when performing something as new as the Kurtág work, which was totally unfamiliar to the audience, some explanation is essential.