It is the bleak mid-summer, chamber music-wise that is, but the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild fixed that with the kickoff of their 2010-11 season and specifically their Sights & Sounds on Sundays series at the North Carolina Museum of Art. Featured artists were the Charlotte, NC, based Blue Ridge Chamber Players (BRCP), a unique group with the configuration of a cello quintet: two violins, viola and two cellos. An ensemble couldn’t make much of a living playing the limited number of works written for such a lineup, so this group also performs the entire gamut of chamber music including string quartets and piano trios. It is almost a judicial musical mandate that whenever a second cellist joins up with a string quartet they perform Schubert’s Quintet in C Major, what many call possibly the greatest single chamber music composition ever written, and you won’t get much argument against that here. BRCP complied with that law as well as providing another C major quintet — by Luigi Boccherini, the very prolific Italian composer and virtuoso cellist. So much for C major being the “easy” key!

The auditorium is in the “old” building of the beautiful new museum campus, and it is a bit of a shock to walk into that cavernous building that now has only empty walls. Nick Lampo, cellist and founder of BRCP in 2005, served as spokesman for the group. The Sights and Sounds series premise is that music and the visual arts can, and do, have a common theme and shared artistic expression. That theory, and the paintings selected to tie the two disciplines together, can have varying degrees of success. The basis of the premise this time was that Boccherini can be referred to as a Rococo composer: frilly, decorative and not much beneath the surface. A painting of an ornate church equated the two. Schubert’s Quintet was paired with two portraits that showed inner turmoil and emotional depth.     

Boccherini was such a virtuosic cellist that he was known to substitute, at a moment’s notice, for violinists, and play the part at pitch! Although he didn’t quite expect the same from mere mortals, his cello parts are quite challenging, and he composed more than thirty works for string quartet plus a second cello. (He also composed many excellent works for string quartet plus guitar.) The work chosen for this concert was his Op. 37, No. 7, a typically florid and appealing work – even on first listen. Lampo was first cellist and Jennifer Humphreys played second. The rest of the group is Peter deVries and Tatiana Karpova, violinists, and Martha Geissler, viola. The violinists and cellists would later swap seating assignments for the Schubert. From the first note, the BRCP showed themselves to be a refined and polished ensemble that readily adapts to differing styles, articulation, and emotional levels. Their intonation and blend was nearly without fault, and they also exuded an inner confidence that allowed for wonderfully expressive playing. As expected, first cellist Lampo had most of the hot licks of the piece, and he tossed them off with great finesse and clarity. While not quite musical junk food, this was an immediately likable, highly decorative piece that in today’s parlance might be saying “let’s party” with no apparent desire to delve any deeper than that: a world away from Schubert.

During the summer of 1828, with complete awareness of his impending death, Schubert wrote this unparalleled masterpiece for no apparent reason and no patron. It is frightening to think of the musical world absent of this piece if, like most of us, he had procrastinated a mere month or two. In this work, labeling a part first or second has no bearing on the difficulty or importance and, in this performance, deVries was violin 1 and Humphreys was cello 1. The opening movement is absolutely orchestral in substance and length, and BRCP delved the emotional depths and bared the troubled soul of Schubert’s tortured genius. The beautiful playing of the heavenly second theme in thirds between both cellos was especially poignant. The equally profound second movement is mostly an exquisite solo by the second cellist with a miraculous accompaniment. The final two movements lighten up the mood a bit, although there remains an undercurrent of regret, unease and foreboding of the rapidly approaching end.

There are few things that are both a privilege to experience and make life worth living: Schubert’s C Major Quintet is one of them, and this performance did nothing to diminish that feeling. If you missed this one, then keep an eye out for several more coming this season by other presenters, as cellist meets string quartet with the required result.