After altogether too much rain of late, concertgoers were blessed with quite pleasant weather on this late summer evening for a real treat of a concert. Word had gotten out, and the event sold out a week or so previously. Kirby Horton Hall at the Sarah P. Duke Gardens is a good size for small string ensembles, but since it is not primarily designed as a concert hall, seating is limited. Two members of the Ciompi Quartet – first violinist Eric Pritchard and recently retired cellist Fred Raimi – were joined by Fred’s brother Max Raimi and pianist Keiko Sekino. (Originally, pianist Derison Duarte was going to perform the Fauré piano quartet. However, he sustained an injury and was replaced at short notice by Sekino. Her preference was to substitute the Brahms Piano Quartet No. 1.)

Pritchard and Fred Raimi are stalwarts of the local music scene and well-known to concert goers in these parts. Fred was cellist for the Ciompi Quartet for 44 years and has also written many a program note with great skill over the years. This concert is the last for him as a member of the quartet, although his final concert in the regular Ciompi series was last spring. Most in the audience were well aware of the poignancy of the moment, and hope Fred will stay active in performance locally – as I know he intends. Max Raimi has come down from his haunts in Chicago from time to time to lend his viola to various concerts here in the Triangle. He has been playing with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 1984 and is a prolific composer as well. Sekino is on the faculty at East Carolina University and has a host of degrees, awards, and performances. With musicians like this on the bill, seats went quickly.

First on the program was Beethoven’s Trio in C minor for violin, viola, and cello, Op. 9, No. 3. As a youngster, I grew up with a limited collection of records, but one of them was the recording by Heifetz, Piatigorsky, and Primrose of the Beethoven first and third string trios of Op. 9. (As a result, I have never warmed to the second trio!) You can listen yourself to this recording here.

This is an early work, written at age 28 and seen as a warm-up to the string quartets that would follow shortly. Once the quartets started, that was the end of Beethoven’s trios. However, the three trios of Op. 9, or at least the first and third, are at the level of interest of the early quartets. Pritchard and the brothers Raimi played from a considerable level of experience with this work, as with the other two pieces on the program. As a result, the rendition was mature and well-proportioned. (I was sitting next to cellist Bonnie Thron, and she remarked that she has played all three pieces with Pritchard in years past!)

Next came Zoltán Kodály’s Duo for violin and cello, Op. 7. As with all the music on this occasion, the duo came from a relatively young composer; he wrote it in 1914 at age 31, but it was not performed until 1924, as there was a bit of a dust-up in Europe about that time. Duets for violin and cello are not common in the repertoire. This and the Ravel are the best known.* Kodály had already stomped about the hinterlands of Hungary, much as Bartók did, recording the locals and their exotic folk music. He also wandered into Hungarian-inhabited regions in Romania and Slovakia, as Hungary was bigger in those days. Both musicians in this performance dug into the considerable technical challenges with gusto and gave quite the lively performance.

After intermission, we had Johannes Brahms’ Quartet in G minor for piano and strings, Op. 25. Listeners may be familiar with this from Arnold Schoenberg’s 1937 arrangement for orchestra which, unlike most such efforts, works really well. This quartet was completed after five years of gestation in 1861 when Brahms was 28 and near the peak of his pianistic abilities – this later corroded from having little patience for practicing.

There’s no getting away from having to practice this one. As with many youthful indiscretions, there are many ideas packed away in this piece, many more than would be found in a similar effort of later years. Keeping the whole thing together is a challenge that was well-met by this ensemble. Sekino had a light but dramatic touch that did not overwhelm the strings and, clearly, she had mastered the work.

The first movement is in sonata form with some twists and turns and five themes in the exposition to keep track of, if one is keeping score. The second movement functions as a scherzo or minuet would in the traditional four movement piano quartet but is marked “Intermezzo and Trio.” The third movement is the Andante con moto slow movement. The finale is the “Rondo alla Zingarese,” an homage to gypsy music, and one of the hardest technical challenges in Brahms’ chamber music. (It’s rather made-up gypsy, much like the Hungarian Dances are made-up Hungarian, but that’s how they did this kind of thing, as a variation on an idealized style, not an attempt to pull off a duplication.) This performance was not just energetic – it was probably the fastest tempo I’ve heard yet for this piece and flawlessly executed.

The net result was an enthusiastic standing ovation and a very pleased audience. This was an evening well spent, and superb performances were given all around.

*I used both as works to get in the mood before writing a duet for Pritchard and Raimi back in 2010.