Looking around the Nelson Music Room during this concert, it was as if a collection of the most influential and important musical figures from North Carolina had assembled for a reunion. We have become spoiled by the presence of the Ciompi Quartet for more than 40 years — their passionate playing and creative programming have helped elevate the musical culture ’round these parts to the high level we currently enjoy.

The friendly, unassuming figure seated in the third row was none other than Robert Ward – Pulitzer Prize winning composer, retired Duke University professor, and former President of the North Carolina School of the Arts. Add to this mix Joseph Robinson, currently Artist-in-Residence at Duke University and principal oboist of the New York Philharmonic from 1978-2005, and you have a collection of some of the finest musical talents of the past 50 years. The occasion for this get-together was the third concert in the Ciompi Quartet’s Duke Series for the 2006-07 academic year, but the reason for the presence of these two prestigious guest artists was the third public playing of Robert Ward’s Quintet for Oboe and String Quartet – commissioned for Joseph Robinson and the Ciompi Quartet. The actual world premiere took place at the North Carolina Museum of Art just six days prior to this performance. For an excellent description of that event please see Joe and Elizabeth Kahn’s review.

If we cheat just a bit and call this performance of Ward’s Oboe Quintet a premiere, we have a program that has the theme of first performances, or at least the first work in the string quartet genre of two of the big “B’s” — Beethoven and Brahms. While Beethoven was almost arrogant regarding his compositions (justifiably so), Brahms was famously cautious and filled with self-doubt in composing and, especially, releasing to the public his symphony and string quartet “firsts.” Part of the reason for this reticence was the perpetual pressure to live up to the label of Beethoven’s successor. A mediocre effort in one of these major musical forms would possibly have consigned him to the abundant pack of German Romantic composers instead of the lead.

Despite Beethoven’s confidence, he wrote a group of string trios before adding a second violin to the grouping. His First Quartet, in the bright key of F major, is a carefully constructed work that retains much of the Haydnesque tradition but has the unmistakable flavor of later Beethoven. Like the opening “da-da-da-dum” of the Fifth Symphony that was to come in a few years, the central motif of this quartet is a quick six-note figure that is turned every which way, inside and out, throughout the course of the first movement. The Ciompi Quartet retained the rhythmic vitality throughout this fascinating study in what you can do with just a few notes. What the first movement does with thematic transformation, the Scherzo does with rhythm. Looking at the simplistic “1-2-3” meter in the score, it is hard to imagine the incredible variations, displaced accents, and syncopation that fly off the page in sound. This was played with great finesse and playfulness. The last movement is a sprightly perpetual motion in triplets that had this group showing that all those countless hours of practicing scales was not in vain.

Brahms’ two string sextets, the piano trios and quartets, and his achingly beautiful Clarinet Quintet have all become entrenched as staples of the chamber music repertoire. While they would certainly not be labeled as seldom played or rarely heard, his three string quartets have never quite caught on as either equals of his other chamber works or among the top string quartet favorites of most audiences. In his erudite and pithy programs notes, cellist Fred Raimi succinctly sums up this conundrum as he describes Brahms’ First String Quartet as “…a work that reeks of effort and pain (like his First Symphony).” The key of C minor has long been used to represent extreme angst, and the first movement is rife with frustration and longing. It is unrelenting and just plain depressing — a great piece if you enjoy wallowing in your misery! The middle movements have some moments of relief, but they incorporate fragments of the first movement. The Finale is as Brahmsian as one can find, and much of the time we are wandering through unstable keys and dangerous modulations that caused some intonation issues. This is a long, long way from the buoyant music of Haydn. The Ciompi Quartet effectively infused their performance with enough grace and lightness, when called for, to offset the ponderousness and gravitas of most of the work.