Under the auspices of Duke Performances, the illustrious Ciompi Quartet, Duke University’s resident string quartet, performed the first concert of their forty-ninth season at Baldwin Auditorium. As is tradition, the season was opened with a work by Haydn. His Quartet in B-flat Major (Op. 50, No. 1) was the chosen work, providing a modal contrast to the following two pieces, both set in F Minor.

This cheerful quartet proved to be an excellent opening. The primary motive in the Allegro movement, although just a simple repetition of a singular note eight times (beginning first with cellist Fred Raimi), connects the other sections and themes of the movement. The Quartet adeptly navigated the constantly shifting texture of this movement with very fluid dynamics along the way. The second movement, Adagio, is set in a regal triple meter. Notable elements of this movement were the well-timed attacks that occurred after frequent small pauses. The two violinists – Eric Pritchard and Hsiao-mei Ku – often led the melody, which was repeated several times with different styles of accompaniment from the other instruments.

The Menuetto: Poco allegretto movement is naturally the most dance-like movement of the four, beginning with a lively forte. Contrasting sections of delicate arpeggios were shared between the two violins with fascinating playfulness. This faster movement was only an introduction to the rapid fourth movement, Finale: Vivace assai. This movement contains nearly constant patterns of sixteenth notes traded between the four instruments, pausing only for several strong cadence points. Violist Jonathan Bagg’s physical expression in particular was fascinating to watch among the swift dynamic and tempo changes. The joyful expression of all four players was sustained through the movement, ending with a strong cadential conclusion.

Next on the program was Beethoven’s “Serioso” Quartet in F Minor, Op. 95. The program notes, written by Fred Raimi, concisely explained the sense of Beethoven’s work: “The goal is darkness.” However, since darkness could not exist without the presence of light, Beethoven indeed has written contrasting moments of illumination. This duplicity is the most fascinating element of the work, shown most obviously in the Allegro con brio movement. A repeated harsh and assaulting motive implies impending doom, then abruptly changes to a beautiful yet desperate melody. As the melody continues, it becomes wilder and wilder, leading back into the main motive. A restless and unpredictable Allegretto ma non troppo movement leads unpredictably into the equally emotional movement Allegro assai vivace ma serioso. The Quartet’s performance of the final movement Larghetto was fantastically emotional, with a sparkling conclusion startlingly written in contrasting F Major.

The definitive highlight of this concert had to be Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34, featuring the renowned guest pianist Awadagin Pratt. Pratt’s expression shone through Brahms’s work. Similar to the Beethoven, this piece sustained an overall feeling of tragedy. The first movement, Allegro non troppo, begins with a unison melody played by all musicians. A mournful and lyrical melody is loudly contrasted by strong bass movements led by Pratt and Raimi. Between these sections, the motion is often led by the piano. This characteristic is one of the main features of Brahms’ Quintet as a whole – the piano is integrated entirely with the strings, rather than featured as just a soloist. This concept requires excellent coordination among instrumentalists; Pratt and the members of the quartet made this seem effortless.

The Andante movement sounds much like a movement from restlessness into peace. Staccato textures often occur in the piano, matching the plucked texture of the strings and creating ominous tension. This tension is released by the switch to major mode at the conclusion of the movement. The third movement, Scherzo: Allegro, is intriguingly structured like a hurricane – a calm and peaceful section is centered between two larger sections of furiousness. These sections are strikingly relentless, combining the cello and piano to produce a strong bass. The Finale: Poco sostenuto reinforces the tragedy begun in the first movement. Pratt and the Quartet brought dramatic rises and falls to life with series of imitative phrases. The final moments of the movement were breathless to hear and watch, showcasing the emotional capacity of Pratt and the Quartet. Overall, this combination of wonderful artists and works was a privilege to witness.

The Ciompi Quartet’s Durham season continues on November 2. For details, click here.

Editor’s Note: This was the second performance of the Brahms in the Triangle in a week. For a review of the other concert, click here.