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The star of the Ciompi Quartet's last summer concert, presented in Kirby Horton Hall at Sarah P. Duke Gardens, was cellist Fred Raimi, venerable mainstay of the ensemble since 1974. Over the years, he has earned several nicknames, including "The Old Reliable," once the slogan of the capital's daily newspaper, and "Frederic the Great," which in turn points to his reputation as king of area cellists. On this occasion, his playing was from start to finish extraordinary, his artistry further enhanced by exceptional performances from the outstanding colleagues he invited to join him in this heartwarming "family" program.
The "family" components consisted of the cellist's brother Max Raimi, distinguished composer and long-time violist in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and two UNC-based guests, violinist Nicholas DiEugenio, who is filling the shoes of the late Richard Luby, and pianist Mimi Solomon, who – in keeping with the family theme – are married to each other. Solomon was in fact a sub for Jane Hawkins, Fred's spouse, who was initially announced as a participant in this concert; Fred R. told us she had been able to hear the dress rehearsal as she continues to recover.
The music seemed splendidly chosen to gladden the hearts of the large audience that filled the admirable room, wherein the acoustics and the overall ambiance are ideal for chamber music.
First up was an engaging stand-alone string trio movement, marked Allegro (D.471), by Schubert, dating from his 16th year. As Fred Raimi explained, the rest – aside from a few fragments of a second movement* – wasn't finished. The performance was wonderful, with immaculate playing, crystal-clear definition, and rock-solid intonation.
There followed an intriguing solo turn by DiEugenio, whose prowess as a fiddler clearly encompasses period practice and "modern" violin playing. He offered Biber's famous Passacaglia, for solo violin, also known as the 16th "Mystery" (or "Rosary") Sonata, sometimes called "The Guardian Angel." He began with a HIP instrument, delivering an astonishing rendition, absolutely true in terms of intonation and otherwise breathtaking for its artistry and technical assurance. Alas, a string popped, but since his other (“modern”) violin was at the ready, DiEugenio picked up again mid-stream, allowing the audience to experience consecutive views of the same piece in old and newer instrumental garb. This was clearly unplanned, but it proved to be a highlight of the evening.
Fred Raimi returned for a profoundly moving performance of the third of the six suites by Bach, music that forms the core of every cellist's raison d'être. This was a realization for the ages, reflecting the artist's life-long exploration of the score, and the audience clearly sensed how special it was, rewarding him with prolonged applause.
Part two began with three Jewish folk songs, arranged by Max Raimi for the family group that includes his brother Fred and his sister-in-law Jane. The first, "Kuma Echa" (Rise, Brother), is lively, suggesting its popular use as a dance. "Eliyohu Hanovi" (Elijah, the Prophet) is far more reverent, sedate, and introspective; this was a second highlight of the evening. The finale, "Nigun Bialik," is a more spirited religious tune, reflecting its Klezmer roots. As a group, these Passover songs make for a very appealing musical set. That they were introduced with comments about those four glasses of wine at the seder merely enhanced enjoyment of the sober rendition heard here.
The grand finale was Mozart's Piano Quartet No. 2, in E-flat, K.493, one of the gems of the repertoire and here given a truly beautiful performance marked by utmost clarity and attention to detail. Those of us who grew up with the old Szell/Budapest recordings of the two piano quartets were surely struck by how clean this performance was – very lightly pedaled on the piano side, and stripped of old-fashioned "fat" and reverberant string tone. You could follow every line of each string instrument, and the piano was ever-present but never dominant. This was something to write home about (or, if you prefer, about which to write home). Must we really wait till next summer for more of this kind of fare, in such a great setting? Well, no. Raimi may be heard again on Sept. 8, in a program featuring music by Bach. The Ciompi Quartet's season begins on Sept. 23. See our calendar for details.
*D.471, with its fragmentary second movement, has been recorded by the estimable Leipzig String Quartet; copies should be readily available from the usual online sources.