When a string quartet, or any musical ensemble for that matter, decides to name their group using a historical figure or a geographic location, there is usually some reason or story behind that. Try as I might, I was unable to discern the background for the Modigliani Quartet naming themselves for the Italian born painter (1884-1920) best known for his nudes and sculptures characterized by elongated, slightly distorted forms. Speculation could be fun, but there is absolutely no distortion of any kind listening to this phenomenal young quartet.

Hosting their second consecutive French string quartet, the Chamber Arts Society of Duke University continued their excellent season with one of those ensembles that make you wonder why you’ve never heard them before, as well as if they are not the best (of course that cannot be determined), they are certainly near the pinnacle. Founded in 2003 in Paris by four close friends attending the Conservatoire National Supérier de Musique de Paris, the current lineup is Amaury Coeytaux, first violin, Loïc Rio, second violin, Laurent Marfaing, viola and François Kieffer, cello. In very little time they had won numerous prestigious chamber music competitions, and their worldwide touring schedule is evidence of the reputation they have garnered. To add to the ambience of a great quartet performing in the acoustically pristine Baldwin Auditorium, they were playing on a loaned set of Italian 17th and 18th century instruments.

If one instinctively associates any music in a minor key with being dark, somber and even a bit depressing, this program had all that and more as all four works were minor. However, the program clearly had great variety and showed the unending nuances that “sad” music has.

Similar to his “Unfinished” Symphony No. 8 in B minor, Franz Schubert’s (1797-1828) Quartet No. 12 in C minor (“Quartettsatz”) is an unfinished work that still has the mystery of why it was left incomplete. Despite its relative brevity, especially as compared to his “heavenly length” late period works, this single-movement quartet encapsulates Schubert. Composed in 1820, it is a work of great vacillations from tender beauty to angry outrage. Within just a few measures, one could already sense the beautiful tone, rhythmic integrity, and sensitive phrasing of these four musicians. Impeccable and flawless technique supported their total allegiance to the composer’s vision. This was a great example of the gradations of minor key works as new flavors kept gently nudging us into different emotions: a harbinger of great things to come.

With Beethoven glaring at him in his rearview mirror (perhaps on his horse and buggy), Brahms imposed a sort of self-torture on completing both his first symphony and his first string quartet. These are probably the two most iconic musical forms and ones that Beethoven revolutionized. Brahms labored to be both himself, yet a worthy successor of Ludwig B. To add even more pressure, he wrote both works in the key of C minor, one of Beethoven’s most profound as well as the key of his fifth symphony.

Brahms’ Quartet in C minor, Op. 51, No. 1 is not an easy piece to listen to. It is complex, dark, and thick; and it is the job of each member of the quartet to reveal its secrets and passions within it. This work can descend into a muddy morass, but each member of the Modigliani Quartet employed their dead-center intonation along with careful observance of dynamics to hand the listener as clear and distinct a sound as you’d find in a Mozart quartet. There were numerous examples here of practically erotic increases and releases of tension which added to an exhausting yet exhilarating emotional roller coaster.

It should not be the case, but many people are quite surprised to learn that Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) wrote string quartets. When one thinks of the beautiful string writing in, for example, La Boheme, it’s a no-brainer. “I Crisantemi” is a single movement Adagio that could easily be planted within any of his great operas, but that by no means diminishes it beauty as a string quartet. Instrumentalists are often told to “sing their line,” and here the players were operatic stars in the best sense of the word. Playing this music on priceless ancient Italian instruments almost made it more sweet and passionate.

I moved from the balcony down to the second row for the second half to get a more personal view of the players, and I was even more amazed by their relatively outward reserve but inner passion and communication. No gimmicks here, just some of the finest playing – and I’ve heard dozens of string quartets.

The finale was Quartet in F minor, op. 80 by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). Certainly not all, but much of Mendelssohn’s music is described as quite “busy” or has “lots of notes.” This quartet is the poster child for that label. It jumps right in with an intense tremolo in the cello that is passed off to each instrument and continues nearly unabated for the rest of the first movement. Expecting some easing off in the following movement? No way. The intensity not only continues but ratchets up. The Modiglianis’ rhythmic precision of some tempos that would burn up a metronome was literally breathtaking. I would not have faulted anyone for screaming out a “yeehaw!” after some astounding licks. A lovely Adagio gave everyone some repose and reflection but the fireworks were not only not done, but somehow stepped up exponentially in the finale. The race to the end was possibly the most powerful and exciting few minutes of music I have ever heard played. The four young men stood up as if it were no big deal. Just doing my job – it’s good to be a musician.