For its first Wilmington concert of 2016, Chamber Music Wilmington presented a performance by the Calidore String Quartet. There was significant concern last season that Chamber Music Wilmington might cease operations; Port City concertgoers have reason to celebrate that they are with us again, reinvigorated, and as good as ever.

Or perhaps even better. The Calidore is a stellar group. Among many other accolades, they are on the roster of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Two and are currently artist-in residence at Stony Brook University outside New York City. Chronologically young (24 years old on average), they play with ripe artistic maturity combined with precision and virtuosity. University of North Carolina Wilmington‘s Beckwith Recital Hall was the venue for this memorable performance. The audience savored music making with great range of expression, subtlety of phrasing, tightness of rhythm, and perfection of instrumental balance.

The first work was Beethoven’s Op. 18, No.3 in D. From the start one could sense the level of artistry to come, as the first phrase began with a fine lyrical statement which immediately created the expression of the main material. The rhythms – so important in Beethoven – were dynamic. When the minor mode arrived, the change in color was palpable. A noticeable quality of the group was their ability to create a whispering soft sound. This appeared any number of times during the program to great effect, aided by the flawless acoustics of Beckwith, in which the softest tones are heard with perfect clarity. One could also hear in this movement, as throughout the program, a transparency of sound. Leading lines were always finely shaped, and so too were the inner voices, lending everything clarity and the sense of intimate conversational exchange.

The second movement had a beautiful beginning, like the first. This slower music brought forth long, full phrases and another beautiful pp. One felt here that the entire group played as a single instrument. The third movement caught an infectious dance quality. The fourth also offered a delightful rhythmic character. The rhythm in the ensemble was perfectly coordinated – again, with the sense that they played as one instrument. The performance was exuberant and the ending delightfully coy – the embodiment of Beethoven’s wonderful musical humor.

The following 10-minute “Langsamer Satz” by Webern – a musical love poem – is in a high romantic idiom, the composer’s style early in his career. There was another beautiful soft beginning and then full sustained lyricism. The phrasing together with pizzicato was most delicate and lyrical, as were the trailing off on the high pitches and the lovely ending. The lines and design of the piece seemed at every turn to be simply inevitable.

The second half was taken up entirely by the intensity of Mendelssohn’s Quartet No. 6 in F minor, Op. 80, inscribed “Requiem for Fanny.” Fanny was his beloved sister, who died at the age of 41, a few months before this piece was written. All the qualities mentioned before came together in the performance of this technically and emotionally large-scale work. The turbulent first movement carried gripping power and pathos, while keeping complete clarity of line and expressing great yearning in the gentler second theme. The second movement had strong contrasts, a wonderful pizzicato ending of the first section, and a fabulous hush at the end.

The sustained third movement was gentle, elegiac, and intimate. Again, there were beautiful contrasts – especially the strong dotted rhythm section. The fade at the end was lovely. The final movement returned to the darkness and turbulence of the first. There were surging crescendos, still with the transparency of line which allowed the rich cello tone underneath to be fully appreciated. The coda brought forth great power; one could feel almost physically, the desperate pain the composer poured into this culminating passage.

After such a program ending, it was good of the ensemble to play a lighter encore. The delightful last movement of Haydn’s Op. 54 No. 1 quartet took up this position. The pathos of the previous piece was fully balanced here by Haydn’s marvelous humor.

Spoken comments from the stage before the Webern and Mendelssohn were concise and very well presented. This is a literate group of musicians who know how to introduce their art to audiences. If here and there in the concert a phrase could have risen to still more passionate heights, it allows us admiring listeners to realize that even great artists grow here and there.

The large Beckwith audience responded with enthusiasm to this evening of consummate artistry.