The folk music of Eastern Europe’s past, with its strong flavor of passionate gypsy song and powerful melodies brought to life by instruments that seem unusual to us today, flavored the music on “Gypsy Caravan,” the Mallarmé Chamber Players’ first program of the 2007-8 concert season, presented in Durham’s First Presbyterian Church. Featured players on this program were Petra Berényi, cimbalom, Jennifer Curtis, violin, Susan Babini, cello, and Ilya Poletaev, piano.

The Mallarmé Chamber Players devoted approximately half of this concert to three works by Hungarian composer György Kurtág, all of which highlighted the strong, rich sounds of the cimbalom, an instrument with a long history in the Eastern European folk tradition, upon which Kurtág draws liberally for his musical inspiration. The cimbalom began life as a folk instrument small enough to be carried easily by its player; it was much like the hammered dulcimer so much a part of American folk tradition. In the nineteenth century, however, a harpsichord-sized concert instrument of four octaves was developed; and in the years following World War II Kurtág recalled the powerful sounds and colors of the cimbalom in much of his music.

In “Splinters,” Op.6c, and “Hommage a Berényi Ferenc 70,” both for solo cimbalom, Kurtág makes use of the instrument’s strong voice, its unusual overtones, and its great powers of expression to convey the volatility of passion as it shifts suddenly from the agitation born of love, anger, grief, and many other similarly strong emotions to the deepest melancholy and pain. These pieces are not programmatic but rather expressive of deep feelings that cimbalom player Petra Berényi perceived in the music and brilliantly expressed in her playing; her technique, which gave her full mastery of a difficult instrument, and a deep understanding of the composer’s intentions, called forth a gratifying response from an enthusiastic audience. The second solo piece, a tribute to Petra Berényi’s father, was the most expressive of all Kurtág’s works on this program, quite understandably evoking from her the most powerful feelings her performance could convey.

The third work by Kurtág on the program was Eight Duos, Op. 4, for violin and cimbalon, the first composition in which he utilized the unique tones of the cimbalon. For this piece Berényi joined musical forces with violinist Jennifer Curtis, and their inspired playing reminded all who heard them that the violin, like the cimbalon, was a favorite instrument of gypsy musicians. The brief duos, filled with abrupt shifts in passion and mood, revealed the composer’s deep connection to the melodies, dynamic shifts and passionate utterance of a people long gone from a world their music so profoundly influenced. There is no doubt that two players having less skill and being less in tune with the composer would not have succeeded in performing this demanding music.

The two other works on the program brought two additional accomplished musicians before the audience. In the first, composer and violinist George Enescu’s “Impressions d’Enfant,” for violin and piano, violinist Curtis joined pianist Ilya Poletaev. Both showed themselves as master instrumentalists who were able to reveal their great technical skills both as individuals and also as two inseparable parts of a musical whole. The violin and the piano, in musical language even more indebted to the Eastern European folk tradition than that of Kurtág, told the tender story of a day in Enescu’s own childhood, beginning with hearing the playing of his old gypsy violin teacher, passing through vivid scenes from nature, seeing beggars and other characters he encountered during that one day, and ending with the falling of night. The superlative playing of Poletaev and Curtis made these scenes come alive in the minds of the listeners.

The final work on the program, the Bohemian composer Antonin Dvorák’s beautiful, beloved Piano Trio in e minor, Op. 90 (“Dumky”), is clearly related to the same strong folk song tradition which obviously inspired Kurtág and Enescu. Based on an old folk melody, the dumka, this great work utilized the masterful playing of violinist Curtis, pianist Poletaev, and cellist Susan Babini, who together brought Dvorák’s music to magical life, clearly enjoying the lush melodies, the Bohemian rhythms, the dynamic shifts, and the dizzying shifts from one tempo to another. When the thundering, brilliant conclusion of the final movement came, an enthusiastic standing ovation was clear indication that no one wanted the playing to be finished.

No performer requires a more emphatic approbation of their success than that.