In recent years, the Ciompi Quartet has featured exemplary programming by inviting guest artists (not to be confused with guest workers) to share the limelight and open our ears to unusual repertory. Such was the case at their end-of-season performance, to which they welcomed soprano Audrey Luna and pianist James Tocco for two seldom played works. The only actual string quartet on the program was Schumann's Op. 43, No. 1, in a minor. It was followed by La bonne chanson, a celebration of love poems by Paul Verlaine to music by Gabriel Fauré. The final work on the program, however – Edward Elgar's Piano Quintet in a minor, Op. 84, a work we have never heard in concert – threw something of a wet blanket on the joyous first half.
No one was prepared for the sweltering heat in Nelson Music Room – neither the audience nor the performers. But a few minutes into the performance of the Schumann String Quartet, first violinist Eric Pritchard, violist Jonathan Bagg and cellist Fred Raimi in their dark suits and ties probably envied second violinist Hsiao-mei Ku in her sleeveless evening attire. We normally don't mention climate when reviewing concerts, but here was a case where the sudden heat wave seemed to affect the performance, including uncharacteristic pitch problems and some ragged bowing, especially in the Scherzo with its rapid spiccato theme. String instruments react to heat by making the strings unstable, sending them out of tune during the course of a single movement. And although professionals should know how to accommodate to sweaty and frigid fingers alike, it took most of the Schumann for the Ciompi to settle in.
While we've never studied the issue statistically, we'd be willing to bet the farm that songs about unhappy love outnumber by 80 per cent those about happy love. La bonne chanson is the only song cycle about love that we know of that is overwhelmingly upbeat. Gabriel Fauré was at the start of an intense love affair with Emma Bardac – which lasted for nearly a decade before she fell for, and eventually married, Claude Debussy. He found the perfect partner to express his own feelings in nine of Verlaine's 21 poems to his new wife. Fauré originally composed these intensely emotional and sensuous works for soprano and piano, but in 1898 he re-scored them for soprano and piano quintet. Surprisingly, Fauré later repudiated this latter version.
Luna, with her warm, liquid voice and excellent diction, soared over the accompaniment, well modulated to promote the vocal line. Tocco easily kept a good balance with the Quartet. She brought sensitivity and superb musicianship to a cycle that requires the most subtle fine tuning in order to keep from being cloying.
Perhaps it was the spirit of Schumann who inspired this bi-polar program. After the heady intoxication of love, Tocco and the Ciompi launched into death, destruction and despair. World War I devastated Edward Elgar. Not only did he lose many of his friends, but the whole world of Edwardian England, which he cherished, lay in tatters. Depressed and in poor health, he withdrew to an isolated cottage in south England, where he composed his four last major works: a Violin Sonata, a String Quartet, the Piano Quintet and the masterful Cello Concerto.
The mood of the Quintet is mostly grim and eerie, an accurate reflection of the composer's mood. At the time Elgar was also reading Edward Bulwer-Lytton's story of the occult, A Strange Story; according to Lady Elgar, it stirred the composer's imagination. Unfortunately it is a rambling work with poorly developed themes and ideas, and no end of good playing could make it interesting. By then the Ciompi's instruments had acclimatized to the heat; pitch and the balance between strings and piano were excellent.
Duke is talking again about renovating the East Duke Building, as well as Nelson, to improve the ventilation and seating. This concert accentuated how desperately the old hall needs it. While Reynolds auditorium is acoustically no match for Nelson, we'll be happy to welcome the Ciompi back there as long as there are assurances that the changes will cover all the bases this time.