When you arrive at a chamber music concert and see on the program names like Puccini, Wolf, Humperdinck, and Verdi, you’ve got to wonder if you didn’t make a wrong turn somewhere and end up at the opera house! But no, there were violinists Eric Pritchard and Hsiao-mei Ku, violist Jonathan Bagg, and cellist Fred Raimi – The Ciompi Quartet  – on stage; their usual instruments poised and ready, and presented as always by Duke Performances.

They began the program with music by the one-time colleague and assistant to Richard Wagner in the first Bayreuth production of Parsifal. What kind of chamber music would this make?  Humperdinck’s Quartet in C (1920) was composed with the works of Dvorák in mind. It is somewhat lighter in style than one would expect; quite lyrical, tuneful, and with an Italianate style mostly. The first movement is marked in the traditional Italian Allegro moderato. The second movement, marked Gemächlich (leisurely), begins with a playful viola solo, here played capriciously by Bagg. This was picked up and developed in an imitative style by the other instruments in a pizzicato passage. The third and concluding movement is also given a descriptive performance indicator in German: Lebhaft (lively; animated). It begins with an heroic theme that is developed in a casual manner and ends in a sub-climactic series of cadences. The Ciompi took full advantage of the strength of the piece, reveling in its tuneful lyricism.

Hugo Wolf, another composer who fell under the influence of Wagner, spent almost his entire illustrious career composing Lieder. One of his few instrumental works was the Italian Serenade, composed in 1887 for string quartet and later (1892) arranged for string orchestra. Said to be based on an old Italian tune, it is charming in its lively, unsentimental romanticism.

Mezzo soprano Krista River joined the Ciompi Quartet in a performance of Ottorino Respighi’s Il Tramonto, a setting in Italian of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem The Sunset. The performance was a delicious, operatic treat in no small part due to River’s gorgeous, well-managed, velvety voice. Respighi’s writing provided a lush, almost orchestral sound for the tragedy Shelly relates, in which lovers unite and are separated by death in the same night. Near the end of the first verse, the poet describes the moonrise as the composer provides a mystical setting of arpeggios and rich harmony. The ending provides, in language where music excels, a poignant apotheosis of sorrow, resignation, and something beyond that.  The individual players each provided outstanding solo work as well as ensemble. This is a piece this reviewer will hope to hear again soon.

After intermission, we heard “Crisantemi,” a string quartet movement by Giacomo Puccini. Puccini was born into a long line of successful church musicians, and he was destined to become the church organist and choir master at Lucca when his training by his uncle judged him ready.

However, when he was 17, he and his brother, Michele, walked eighteen miles to Pisa to see a performance of Verdi’s Aïda and that was that. Puccini knew immediately that his career was to be in the opera theater. However, it was not until 1893, at the age of 35, after finding the right librettist, that Manon Lescaut, the first of his wildly successful operas, was produced. In 1890 he composed “Crisantemi” (Chrysanthemums) in a single night, he said, as an elegy in response to the death of the Duke of Savoy. It has hints of the dramatic power and melodic genius of the composer of the operas that were to come. Two thematic ideas were used a couple of years later in the last act of Manon Lescaut. This performance was sad, sweet, and a pleasure to hear.

Closing the program was Verdi’s only string quartet. It was composed during a break in rehearsals for a performance of Aïda in 1873. As in all of his non-operatic compositions, especially his sacred choral works, the dramatic extremes and emotional expressiveness of the theater are here evident as well. However, Verdi was no stranger to musical form and technique. The Quartet in E minor is shaped in traditional sonata form of four movements: Allegro, Andantino, Prestissimo, and Allegro assai mosso. The quartet has all you would expect from mature Verdi. The first movement is a confidently developed Allegro. The Andantino is lyrical and dramatic.  The Prestissimo is a ripping but delicate outing with a lovely trio section. The fourth movement is cast in a lively fugue somewhat reminiscent of the double choir fugue, Sanctus, of the Requiem, which was given its first performance just a year later.

The Ciompi Quartet was as always technically on the mark and musically solid. The program was an interesting sidelight into the work of composers we usually associate with the opera house who have something to offer as well in the intimate setting of chamber music.

The Ciompi Quartet’s 2011-12 offerings contunue with an off-series concert on November 20 – for details, click here – and with concert no. 3 of the season, with the Borromeo String Quartet, on February 18 – for details, click here.