Ciompi Quartet Plays Wheelock


Donald Wheelock is a native New Englander and has taught at Smith College in Northampton. Massachusetts since 1974, where he is currently Professor of Music. He studied composition with Edgar Curtis and Kenneth Leighton prior to receiving his Master of Music degree from the Yale University School of Music, where he was a student of composer Yehudi Wyner. A frequent guest at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, he has twice received a Guggenheim Fellowship. In addition to his quartets, he has written many chamber ensemble works, solo instrumental compositions, and numerous vocal, choral, and orchestral works.

From the opening measures of his quartets it becomes clear that Wheelock is an individualist. The music reveals few strong links to other contemporary American composers. Yet the striking, often vehement lyricism in these works, the impressive range of moods and textures they traverse, and especially their powerfully gripping and inventive counterpoint, give them a depth and an inner life that ought to be admired by any composer working today. Wheelock's real compatriots are those composers from every era who have believed that the string quartet is a medium for intense, serious, and intimate expression. Ever since Haydn brought the string quartet to life over two centuries ago, certain composers have seemed especially at home within the rather austere limits of the ensemble. Wheelock is one of these.

Both Quartets on this disc were premiered by the Ciompi String Quartet. The Fourth was begun soon after the Third's debut in 1990, in response to the excitement the composer felt upon completing the Third Quartet and hearing it performed by the Ciompi. The Fourth Quartet was completed in 1992. The Ciompi Quartet thus feels a bit like a godparent to these two Quartets; their progress in the world will be watched with special pleasure and interest by the group.

Third String Quartet

The Third Quartet represents a substantial undertaking for its composer, the quartet performing it, and for the listener as well. Four of its five movements are grand in scope. The other, the Burlesca, is a scherzo-like interlude which is placed at the center of the work and contrasts with the more weighty movements that surround it. The quartet itself ought to occupy the central position in a program, commanding sustained attention to its far-reaching and diverse discourses.

The first movement begins as a light, wispy allegretto in 3/8, but soon reveals its potential to erupt violently in sustained fortissimo passages. A rhythmic quirk enters which adds an extra beat to 3/8 bars here and there, and this 1+3 motive emerges as a signature of the movement, popping up continually to assert its asymmetry. The second movement alternates a section of fleet triplet-bound music with slower episodes, one of which recalls the first movement's 3/8 meter. At the end of the movement the triplet passage receives a thorough recapitulation worthy of the classical era. Indeed, throughout the work Wheelock reveals a decidedly classical orientation: balanced phrases often remain intact in their subsequent appearances; each movement, in fact, repeats a substantial amount of its material—no epigrammatic brevity here. Wheelock always approaches the moment of recapitulation with a keen sense of its drama, notably in the fourth movement, a rich and moving Cantabile. Here a remarkably long accelerando leads finally to the opening theme's climactic return, played fortissimo the second time around. The last movement, Allegro dramatico, is a wild, Slavic-flavored dance with a pitched intensity that provides a fitting culmination to this highly charged work.

Fourth String Quartet

The composer has written the following about his Fourth String Quartet:

“This quartet is a piece like none of mine before it, one whose vital statistics might be considered extreme by any standards. It is the longest movement I have written, roughly twenty-four minutes in duration. It does not, as do many of my other longer movements, divide itself into separate, self-contained or balletic sections, but instead develops its varied and complex argument using many themes, ideas, textures and tempo changes, all within the single meter of cut time.

The opening theme, after a few pages of introductory development, drops out for fifteen pages before making the first of its increasingly dramatic reappearances. A kind of second subject, a Brahmsian lyrical section, is recapitulated less than half way through the piece, intensified by a soaring violin obligato, never to be heard from again, except perhaps as transitory wisps of the many shorter episodes based on chorale-like material. A violent, obsessive motoric section is contrapuntally tamed upon its reappearances throughout the piece.”

The Ciompi Quartet

Named after its founder, the renowned Italian violinist Giorgio Ciompi, the Ciompi Quartet has been in residence at Duke University since 1965. The current members of the quartet are professors in the Department of Music at Duke, where they perform, teach strings and chamber music, and bring the living tradition of string quartet playing into the University, as well as to many cities in the region, The Ciompi Quartet has performed on chamber music series in major cities across the United States and abroad. In 1991 they became one of the few string quartets ever invited to perform in China. The group's first compact disc of music by Beethoven and Frank Bridge was released by Sheffield Lab in 1990, and a second compact disc was released in 1993 by Albany Records featuring works by American composers Aaron Copland, Stephen Jaffe, and Robert Ward. In addition to their performance of the masterworks of the Classical and Romantic periods, the Ciompi Quartet has a special interest in commissioning and performing music by contemporary composers.

Recorded at St. Stephens' Episcopal Church in Durham, North Carolina on November 22-24, 1993 and February 29-March 1, 1994.

Engineer: Terry Medalen

The Ciompi Quartet can also be heard on Albany Records TROY073 playing works for String Quartets by Aaron Copland, Robert Ward, and Stephen Jaffe.

The Ciompi Quartet

Bruce Berg, violin

Hsia-mei Ku, violin

Jonathan Bagg, viola

Donald Wheelock

Frederic Raimi, cello

Cover Art: View of Northampton by Christopher Bagg


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