One of the most significant innovations of Greensboro Symphony music director Dmitri Sitkovetsky has been his Sitkovetsky and Friends Chamber Series, now in its fifteenth season featuring guest soloists in imaginative chamber music programs in company with the maestro himself and members of the orchestra. Since the donated services of its initial season, it has been generously supported by Garson Rice and Rice Toyota. The acoustically delightful Recital Hall of the University of North Carolina Greensboro was well-filled by music lovers who had braved the wretched remnants of a tropical storm.

Pianist Barry Douglas first came to international attention as the gold medal winner at the Eight Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow on July 3, 1986. The Northern Irish native was the first winner from the West since Van Cliburn in 1958. As guest soloist with the orchestra, he is being featured in the rarely performed Piano Concerto No. 2 in G, Op. 44, by Tchaikovsky. For this chamber concert, Douglas anchored the great Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34, paired with two selections from the Four Impromptus, Op. 90, of Schubert.

Douglas spun seamless melodic lines throughout the Impromptu No. 1, in C minor, and the Impromptu No. 4, in A-flat. Plenty of dynamic contrasts were brought to No. 1 after the vigorous fff dominant octave opening. The permutations of the opening funeral march rhythm gave constant pleasure such as in the treble over the rippling bass. My favorite, No. 4, received a ravishing performance with its gorgeous treble arabesques and sharply contrasted rhythmic accompaniment.

Brahms’ Piano Quintet evolved over several attempts. The first version (1862) was for string quartet with a second cello like Schubert’s great Cello Quintet in C. This was scrapped and followed by a version for two pianos. The clear pianistic nature of much of the work led to the 1864 and final version for piano and string quartet, one of greatest in the repertoire. It is in four movements: Allegro non troppo, Andante un poco adagio, Scherzo: Allegro, and Finale: Poco sostenuto-Allegro non troppo. Brahms had made a major study of Schubert’s music besides editing his piano works, and the influence of the earlier composer’s singing melodic lines are evident throughout.

Pianist Douglas was joined by Sitkovetsky as first violin with principal orchestra players Marjorie Bagley, second violin, Scott Rawls, viola, and Alexander Ezerman, cello. While never lacking for power, Douglas balanced dynamics perfectly with the strings throughout, no mean achievement in this challenging work. His dynamic range was ideally graduated from fff to pp. The ensemble brought out all the vivid dramatic contrasts of the outer movements. The Schubert-like qualities of the slow movement were given full rein in a seamless, flowing melodic line. The scherzo and its trio were memorable. Besides the piano, Brahms (like Mozart) played the viola. Rawls’ rich, warm tone was a constant pleasure in the many prominent viola parts. Ezerman’s resonant pizzicatos and especially his solo marking the transition from the Finale’s introduction were delightful. Sitkovetsky’s and Bagley’s unison playing was perfectly matched while the maestro’s solos were superb as usual.  One of the work’s many pleasures is Brahms’ pairing of instruments, such as violin against cello pizzicatos, or keyboard against one or two strings. All of these were delivered with consummate skill and artistry.