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It was a perfect setup for a really special night. Duke Gardens' Kirby Horton Hall was prepped and ready for the latest installment of the summer concert series, Ciompi Quartet Presents. A tailor-made transcription had been painstakingly prepared. A trio of musicians with a history of performing all over the world had come together for a special all-Bach program. The sold-out audience was excited for what they were about to experience.
And yet, it didn't quite pull together.
The program consisted of a transcription of J.S. Bach's first four sonatas for violin and obbligato harpsichord for two violins and cello. Eric Pritchard completed the transcriptions, which featured tasteful and effective adaptations as well as effective use of pizzicato. For most of the works on the program, the transcription worked quite naturally. The new timbres highlighted different elements of the music, making the multi-voiced polyphony especially distinct and clear. The Sonata No. 3 in E, S. 1016, was less malleable to transcription, but only somewhat less idiomatic than the others.
The venue was beautifully suited for the small chamber group. It was an intimate, lovely setting with perfect acoustics for chamber music. Duke Gardens provided a relaxing backdrop, as well as a refreshing interlude during admission for the majority of the audience. Gardens pair very well with Bach.
Violinists Pritchard and Katie Lansdale, and cellist Barbara Blaker Krumdieck came together to create the string trio for the evening. All three musicians have extensive experience in performing this type of literature around the globe and have worked with household names. Pritchard has been of member of the Ciompi Quartet since 1995. Lansdale specializes in solo performances of Bach, and has performed the complete cycle of solo violin sonatas internationally. Krumdieck brings her rich experiences with Baroque cello and chamber literature to craft informed, passionate performances. To further heighten expectations, all three were playing on period instruments from Duke's renowned collection.
With a rich, unusual program, a beautiful venue, a warm, attentive audience, and talented artists with impressive resumes, one would expect a foolproof recipe for an excellent concert. Unfortunately, the trio appeared under-rehearsed. With inconsistencies in the use of vibrato, articulation, and the finer points of dynamics, the music was less compelling than it ought to have been. Phrase shaping was off, and communication between the performers was inconsistent. In all fairness, the trio members did not appear to have a history of frequently performing chamber music together, and perhaps rehearsal time was limited. Individually, each performer would have been a joy to hear. However, together the whole was less than the sum of the parts.
In spite of the issues with ensemble, the Sonata No. 2 in A, S. 1015, still came off very well. The piece itself features some especially spectacular contrapuntal and canonic writing, which was highlighted by the new transcription. Having each separate line played by a different musician brought out the melodic interplay with new perspective. The second two movements of the Sonata No. 3 in E, S. 1016 proved to be another high point on the program. The Adagio ma non tanto had an almost operatic feel with the intricate solo melody over the simpler accompaniment – a nice break from the contrapuntal density of the previous movements. Commentary between sonatas was funny, informative, and appropriately brief. An audience's favorite included Claude Debussy's biting complaints on Bach's "insistence on developing a mediocre idea no matter what," which drew a laugh from the Bach devotees in the room. The concert was definitely enjoyable, just not as exceptional as expected.
Ciompi Quartet Presents has one last performance coming up for the summer series. It also looks like a fantastic program, and tickets are selling quickly. See our calendar for more details.