The competition was fierce on Saturday night, November 16 for your heart, mind and dollars. You might have thought you were perusing the New York Times deciding which of the many offerings to attend instead of checking out the excellent and comprehensive calendar. After hearing the Paris Piano Trio and the Ysaye String Quartet at Duke’s Reynolds Theater, I did not feel the least bit envious of those who got to experience the big Italian singer, the great Russian pianist or the excellent American guitarist.

I thought I had arrived with time to spare , but the auditorium was already nearly filled and I was forced to sit in the 2nd row – not great seats for chamber music in Reynolds.

This was very unusual programming. I don’t recall, at least from the Chamber Arts Society, a joint recital of this kind. Even stranger was the fact that although many came to hear the Paris Piano Trio, there were no piano trios performed. Add to that the coincidence that we were right in the middle of “French Awareness Week” while listening to French performers playing all-French composers. (OK, I know some people proclaim Franck as actually Belgian). Some nice white wine with cheese and baguettes would have seemed appropriate.

Regis Pasquier, violin and Roland Pidoux, cello, both members of the Paris Piano Trio, began the evening with an enchanting reading of Maurice Ravel’s Sonata for violin and cello. This is not a combination that has many entries in its repertoire and Ravel took nearly eighteen months to compose the work, finishing in 1922. Dedicated to Debussy, this work was an attempt to place more emphasis on melody, experiment with bitonality and place some technical demands on the musicians that must have been frightening to both players and audiences at its premiere. This is a work that requires masterful technical expertise with incisive rhythmic control. Both players exhibited these qualities.

However, I feel that both of them, particularly the cellist neglected beauty of tone and sound in favor of the more flamboyant aspects of the composition. “I would pay to hear him read the phonebook” is a line that people have used to describe the late Sir Laurence Olivier and other great actors and orators. I too would gladly attend a recital of Rostropovich playing scales just because of the magnificence of his sound. Perhaps nitpicky, but a quality I missed in an otherwise wonderful performance.

The Ysaye Quartet was next as they took the stage for a highly anticipated reading of the Quartet in G minor, Op. 10, by Claude Debussy. You can barely say the name of this string quartet without also mentioning the Ravel quartet. There are dozens if not hundreds of recordings pairing these two, so it was a nice programming change to include the Ravel Sonata before this. Both are the only string quartet by each composer, both are lumped under the French impressionist style, but each is unmistakably characteristic of its composer and the differences are more striking than the similarities.

The performance was aided by a subtle but effective difference in seating that I also noticed the Takacs Quartet employed in the same hall. They both use a more open seating that is not squared off like the majority of string quartets. This allows the audience to both see and hear the second violinist and violist better in addition to the first violinist and cellist angled more out towards the audience.

One can describe the themes, harmonic language, motif, etc., of this work, but that quickly becomes pedantic and ultimately futile. This piece, along with the composer’s L’Apres-midi d’une faune , have been labeled as the first of the Impressionist style in music, aiming to mirror similar styles in painting and poetry. Because of this they have been over-analyzed when just experiencing them is enough. Tonight’s performance had that certain, undefinable something that pushes a “merely” great performance to memorable.

I recall having a conversation regarding an American flamenco guitarist. Despite his technical brilliance, something was not quite right. Do you have to grow up with, live, eat and breathe it in order to truly attain authenticity? Is there something so engrained in the “Frenchness” of this work that only someone from a French culture can find and convey its secrets. I don’t have any answers. I just know that everyone who heard the Ysaye’s performance felt this special quality. Debussy would have been very pleased.

Jean-Claude Pennetier, pianist of the Paris Piano Trio was loaned to the Ysaye Quartet for Cesar Franck’s Quintet in F minor for piano and strings. Written in 1879, this is sometimes proclaimed the first great masterpiece in French chamber music. I have got in trouble before regarding another French piano quintet by Faure, so I will tread lightly here. First off, I thought the pianist was exquisite. He displayed a sensitive touch, and knew when to step out or back off. This work is described as being in a cyclic form – basically meaning that each of the three movements share some thematic materials.

This did help the cohesiveness and structure but still wasn’t enough to sustain interest for another hearing. Without being fancy and academic about it, that, to me, is the signature question. Do you want to hear, see, taste, experience this again? Despite brilliant playing, I have to answer – no. So, I’m zero for two for French piano quintets. Here come the letters to the editor.