Now in their 40th anniversary season, the Ciompi Quartet of Duke University ably demonstrated their knack for creative programming and mature interpretive skills on February 18 in the intimacy and warmth of the Nelson Music Room. A packed house heard the evening’s fare by Mozart, Schubert, Wolf, and Verdi.

Collaborating with Joseph Robinson, former principal oboist of the New York Philharmonic, three members of the Ciompi — Eric Pritchard, violin, Jonathan Bagg, viola, and Fred Raimi, cello — began the program with Mozart’s Quartet for Oboe and Strings in F major. From the oboist’s opening two notes to the final high F at the end of the work, Robinson captivated the audience with tone of unusual bell-like clarity and purity. The lightness in his style and the breath-supported playing of a wind instrument drew the strings into the gentle ebb and flow of his phrasing, which resulted in a reading of elegant brilliance. He added a lovely cadenza, presumably his own, at an appropriate fermata in the slow movement. In the third movement, his long appoggiaturas, which are intended to lean into dissonances, ineffectively broke the flow of several passages. Pritchard’s sound in his first solo statement projected immediate warmth and excitement. A human element found in live performances — as opposed to an impossibly high standard of perfection heard in many recordings, edited as they are — led to a couple of slightly marred runs, a miscounted entrance, and a dropped bow. Because of the poise and concentration of the performers, however, these small events detracted little from the expressive lines so characteristic of the performance.

I look forward to hearing much more from Robinson, who is beginning a three-year artist residency at Duke. He returns to Duke on Saturday, April 15, for a one-day workshop, “A Day in the Robinson School of Oboe Playing,” which includes a master class and an afternoon recital.

The other three compositions on the program included Schubert’s one-movement String Quartet in C minor (“Quartettsatz”), Hugo Wolf’s Italian Serenade, and Verdi’s seldom-heard Quartet in E minor. These three composers, however, are best known for either their Lieder or operas. Though Schubert composed many significant works of chamber music, Wolf wrote just a few pieces in the genre, and Verdi penned less than a handful of purely instrumental works. All, however, brought deeply ingrained perspectives of dramatic writing to their compositional style in these quartets — a genre existing for them as a wordless medium. Because of their backgrounds, they retained their senses of drama — vivid contrasts of musical energy with changing dynamics, textures, and constant, sometimes dizzying modulations. In this realm, the Schubert and Wolf pieces stand as dazzling gems in the string quartet literature.

The Ciompi members, now joined by their other regular violinist, Hsiao-mei Ku, plunged into this milieu with force, unity, and lively tempos, sensibly conveying to the audience the dimensions of these expressive, almost theatrical works. The performers portrayed the highly contrasted sections of the Schubert effectively. For example, they created Angst in the opening nervous fast sixteenth notes. Moments later, listeners were lifted by an ethereal melody sweetly played by Pritchard above a rhythmic figure that cantered gently below. A bit later, the lower strings growled through fast sixteenths while Pritchard sizzled through difficult runs that seemingly left sparks on the fingerboard.

Our ears reeled from hearing the frequent modulations in Wolf’s Serenade, a work full of bounce and vigor. The performers led the listeners through this rolling terrain with exquisite phrasing, tasteful rubatos, and teasing moments. In the cello recitative, Raimi poured forth beautiful tones. Later Bagg, Pritchard, and then Ku came in with particularly sensuous tones in imitation of the earlier recitative, which this time ratcheted up the pace for the final appearance of the original theme.

Verdi shows himself in the E minor quartet to be proficient in effective techniques for writing string quartets. The music reveals that he may have written it as if, in his mind’s eye, he were seeing and feeling an unfolding drama on the stage. The Ciompi rendered the fugue-like passages of the first movement decisively and treated the wide range of contrasts with unmistakable intent. When the intensity of the activity increased, they chased the energetic notes off the page. In a contrasting chorale-like passage, the group collaborated with the precision of two hands and two feet of an organist. Bouts of furious activity punctuate the basic café-type waltz in the second movement. The players switched their emotional costumes quickly for the two “character” roles Verdi maps out there. Raimi performed the long cello solo in the second half of the third movement with the confidence and beauty of a great Verdi tenor. The fourth movement, set in Mendelssohnian-like bright quick notes, displays Verdi’s skills at fugal writing. Each player, in turn, briskly entered with the motif many times over. Verdi, who quickly and frequently changes the landscape, keeps the ears of the audience attentive to what is taking place. Again, the Ciompi moved deftly between fortissimo and very soft passages, never losing crispness and precision.

Throughout the evening, the Ciompi Quartet maintained a high degree of balance and unified ensemble. Like four surfboarders in tandem, they constantly rode the crest of the waves of aesthetic expressions with grace. Ku and Bagg quietly provided the inner glue. The Ciompi Quartet, in short, made the evening sparkle, giving each composer a splendid voice.

The program notes by Jonathan Bagg and Fred Raimi provided the audience with fascinating insights into the compositions. Raimi deserves special mention for the extremely creative format of his notes about Verdi, which he framed as an imaginary letter from Verdi to a friend.

This Ciompi concert, without a doubt, was a wonderful way to spend a chilly, yes, wintry Saturday evening.

*We are delighted at long last to introduce Doris B. Powers to readers of CVNC. Triangle residents will recall her service as music writer for the Chapel Hill News – and her many performances throughout the state in orchestras and chamber ensembles, both modern and HIP. She’s presently engaged with a major editing project involving C.P.E. Bach so chances are her work here will be infrequent for a while.