The intimate and responsive acoustics of the Ernest Nelson Music Room in the East Duke Building is an ideal venue for chamber music. Easter weekend may have diminished the number but not the enthusiasm of music lovers for the Ciompi Quartet‘s final series concert. Their program was enterprising, opening with a Haydn piece from his “Strum und Drang” period, then offering the southern regional premiere of a work commissioned by the Ciompi, and ending with a rarely-heard quintet by Elgar. Pianist Ian Hobson was the guest artist for the latter.

This season, the Ciompi have been giving a second look at some of the set of six quartets in Opus 20 by Joseph Haydn (1732-1809). In contrast to other quartets in this set, the Quartet No. 5 in F minor returns to the more first-violin-dominated scoring of earlier sets. The leading line is almost always taken by the first violin. The dominant mood of this quartet is dark and tragic. The anguish of the first movement is followed by the restless, relentless rhythm of a sullen minuet. The rhythmic background of the Adagio is derived from the siciliano, an old Italian dance. The foreground is dominated by a rocking melody first played by the first violin. The finale is a fugue on two short subjects which the composer manipulates through constantly changing keys in what Melvin Berger (writing in his Guide to Chamber Music) calls an “undertone”. These build to two forceful outbursts that end the movement. The Ciompi Quartet played with superb intonation, refined dynamics, and full string tone.

Composer Donald Wheelock (b.1941) was present for what he called the southern regional premiere of his String Quartet No. 6, commissioned by the Ciompi Quartet. Wheelock said the world premiere took place two weeks earlier at Smith College. His excellent program note recounts his long association with the Ciompi Quartet which has premiered three of his six quartets and recorded Quartets Nos. 3 &4 for Albany Records.

Wheelock writes that his “sixth string quartet is characterized more by its texture than by its thematic material.” It is in four designated movements – Maestoso, Andante, Allegretto, and Cadenza; Fugue and Finale – but seems like it is in five movements because of a brief pause at the transition between the “cadenza” and the fugue. Wheelock described the first movement as “organized chaos,” full of intense energy. The chaos is firmly constructed with imitative counterpoint. The most immediately winning movement is the lovely Andante, played “con sordino” (with mutes). Its light textures make the strongest possible contrast to the first movement’s density and intensity. The composer admits finding the perfect tempo for the designation “Allegretto” has been a challenge, rather like the choices of Goldilocks and the three bears. The third movement “abounds in rhythmic games, placing the motive both on and off the beat and featuring it in longer melodies.” This movement was especially fascinating to listen to and watch as musical fragments were exchanged among and between players. Wheelock said the players have to read the cadenza for all four players off the full score. His fugue is on a “long subject” and the music builds in intensity until “not much of the subject is left except for its first three notes, configured every which way into imitative knots of concision.” A return to the energy of the first movement brings the work to an intense end.

The Ciompi Quartet played Wheelock’s Sixth Quartet with great commitment and precisely controlled intensity. Articulation and intonation were superb and the range of string tone was remarkable. Memorable moments included Fred Raimi strumming his cello to accompany a lovely viola figure played by Jonathan Bagg. Both Eric Pritchard and Hsiao-Mei Ku produced some gorgeous, soaring high violin lines.

Younger English composers of the generation that survived the slaughters of WWI, such as Arthur Bliss, found the tonal beauty of the late chamber music of Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) inadequate in light of their desire to erase every trace of naïve Edwardian Imperial illusions. One century removed, we can appreciate the delicate beauties of Elgar’s Piano Quintet in A minor, Op. 84 (1918). The work is rarely heard in performance or on recordings. The piano part is not a slam-bang virtuoso part as in Brahms’ Op. 34 or Dvořák’s Op.81 but is subtle and more evenly balanced with the strings. The work is in three movements. Bagg’s program note describes the music that begins and ends the first movement as “a halting motive in the strings that broods under a simple piano line.” It is at once quixotic and romantic. Among several exuberant episodes is an allusion to Spanish music suggested by strumming pizzicatos and use of the Phrygian mode. A gorgeous, rich melody dominates the following Adagio. The striding theme of the last movement is marked “con dignita” and is reminiscent of the “noblimente” theme of Elgar’s First Symphony. Pianist Ian Hobson made the best possible case for the subtle style of Elgar’s score with refined poetry or plenty of power when needed. Balance between keyboard and strings was ideal. All the refinement of string playing already attributed to the Ciompi players was present in their interpretation of the Elgar.

For a final listen to the Haydn and for music by Shostakovich, head to the Gothic Reading Room in Perkins Library at noon on April 10. For details, see the sidebar.