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Normally first among equals, the Ciompi Quartet's first violinist, Eric Pritchard, detached himself from the ensemble in a recital of music for solo violin in the Nelson Music Room of Duke University. The immediate association with music for violin alone is the three Sonatas and three Partitas of Johann Sebastian Bach, and Pritchard did not fly in the face of expectations – although with a clever twist. Recognizing the Sonatas' and Partitas' importance in classical music history in general and for the violin literature and technique in particular, he used the Partita No. 3 in E major as a scaffolding for his entire program, interspersing each of its six movements with a twentieth-century work. It was an ingenious and effective approach that clearly illustrated the Baroque master's long arm of influence. Pritchard's choice of contemporary composers to set off the Bach included T. J. Anderson, Eugène Ysaÿe, and Roger Hannay, plus a new voice, that of Bill Robinson (more on Robinson later).
Pritchard was in top form; he had obviously designed the program with loving care, executing it with just about the best playing we've ever heard from him. His rendition of the E major Partita was both thoughtful and rich with feeling, and his decision to present it in a novel musical context brought out fresh perceptions.
In the first half of the program, Pritchard appeared to be pairing the Bach movement with its following contemporary piece in both mood and style. He followed the lively Preludio with the Sonata No. 1 for Solo Violin by Bill Robinson, the first of eleven sonatas inspired by the Bach Partitas. In this three-movement work you heard Bach in the two-voiced counterpoint of the second movement and the final Allegro vivo with its rhythm and meter of a gigue.
Robinson (b.1955) is a relatively new face among composers, an Eastman-trained violinist who was forced to abandon his instrument as a result of arthritis in his hands. In a humorously self-depreciating introduction to his works delivered from the stage, he told of composing some 25 solo violin sonatas for his own use, which he reduced to 11 between 1975 and 2003. The recital featured Nos. 1, 10 and 11. Now pursuing a graduate degree in physics at NC State, Robinson can anticipate with satisfaction Pritchard's forthcoming CD of his complete solo violin oeuvre.
Paired with the Partita's solemn second movement (Loure), Pritchard played T. J. Anderson's "Aurilia, in Memoriam," a warm and gentle musical tribute to the late wife of John Hope Franklin.
Following the Gavotte en Rondeau movement from Bach's Partita came the long-delayed resolution of our curiosity: Roger Hannay's "Grande Concerte," which we had heard last month in its incarnation as the first violin part of Hannay's Fourth Quartet (aka "Grande Concerte," "Concert Music for Cello," "O Solo Viola," plus an additional piece for solo violin, all four played simultaneously. (See http://www.CVNC.org/reviews/2006/122006/Hannay.html.) Conceived as "a musical portrait of the rural itinerant fiddler touring 19th century small town opera houses," "Grande Concerte," with its hints of numerous warhorses,combines Paganini-esque virtuosity and humor, both of which Pritchard pulled off with panache.
For the second half of the program the precise musical pairing between Bach's Partita movements and the contemporary pieces was not as clear, although the overall debt was. Pritchard performed Robinson's Tenth and Eleventh Sonatas following the Bach minuet and bourée movements respectively. The debt to Bach was apparent in Robinson's use of an ostinato rhythm in the first movement of Sonata No. 10 and in the lively "Ho Dao" (i.e. Hoedown) that concludes Sonata No. 11.
To match the virtuosity of Hannay's "Grande Concerte," Pritchard concluded with "Ballade," Op. 27/3, by Ysaÿe. It was a perfect finale and perhaps the inspiration for the concept of Pritchard's program; Ysaÿe's extremely difficult solo violin music abounds in quotes from the solo violin repertory – particularly Bach.
In dedicating the Ysaÿe to his wife, Laura, Pritchard noted from the stage that he had performed it at his first recital at Duke exactly eleven years ago to the day, which had also been the day on which he met and fell in "love at first sight" with Laura. It was a touching tribute, the virtuosic playing infused with love.