Perhaps an unusual Sunday matinee timing kept attendance down a little for the Ciompi String Quartet in Duke University’s ideal venue, the Ernest R. Nelson Music Room, on the East Campus. The ensemble took advantage of the presence of clarinetist Allan Ware to program the repertory’s greatest work for the combination, Quintet in B minor, Op. 115 (1891). Short works by a lesser known English composer and a contemporary Hungarian composer served as intriguing appetizers.

English composer Frank Bridge (1879-1941) is probably better known for having privately tutored Benjamin Britten who paid homage to his teacher with Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (1937). Collectors of music depicting the oceans may have heard Bridge’s The Sea suite (1910-11). The Ciompi Quartet programmed and recorded the composer’s Fourth Quartet some years ago. Bridges’ works past about 1926, beginning with the Third Quartet, reflect the influence of the Second Viennese School so-called atonal or twelve-tone styles. However his earlier works, including Three Novelletten (1904), are very much in a Romantic idiom not unlike Ralph Vaughan-Williams. According to cellist Fred Raimi’s succinct and useful notes, the first, marked Andante moderato has especially lush harmonies. Delicate string textures cushion a gorgeous viola tune leading to an intense, stormy section, before returning to the gentle tone of the opening. The Presto-Allegretto is “a quick-silver scherzo” divided into three sections. Raimi writes the players try “to sound like trumpets” for the fanfare opening of the festive Allegro vivo.

I have always thought the Ciompi Quartet can hold its own against any of the heavily recorded and promoted touring ensembles and this was very true of this performance. The tone and color palette of each player was extraordinarily rich throughout this concert. The viola was Bridge’s instrument and Jonathan Bagg’s playing of the prominent solo tune in the first novelletten was ravishing.

There is much to be said for contemporary composers who can write succinctly such as the model Anton Webern provided. Hungarian composer György Kurtág (b. 1926) is a great example with his use of “microludes,” music lasting sometimes fifteen or more seconds. Kurtág is a master of concision as well as a composer of a relatively small catalog. His few works have had remarkable international influence. Hommage à Mihály András 12 Microludes for String Quartet, Op. 13 (1977-78) was the composer’s first quartet since 1959. Raimi’s notes recommend not trying to follow all 12 but rather to pay attention to “the expression concentrated in each little piece.”

The sheer string sound the Ciompi players produced was an endless marvel. The dynamic range was very broad and intonation was immaculate. It was fascinating to hear and see the multiple combinations and pairings as the players proceeded through the twelve sections. Violinists Eric Prichard and Hsiao-Mei Ku produced wonderfully exact and matched high notes. Cellist Raimi provided a dark, rich bass line and paired flawlessly with Baggs’ mellow viola. The Ciompi Quartet has programmed the Kurtág several times but this was the first time I counted all 12 exactly. I was not able to do so for their surprise encore of the whole piece but was able to appreciate subtle tonal differences.

When I get ready to review late Brahms’ works, I pull Rodale’s The Synonym Finder off the shelf to find different words to use for “autumnal,” the bittersweet tone of most of works of this period. After Brahms had composed his Opus 111 string quintet he wrote to his publisher that he was finished with composing. However at a spa he heard the clarinetist Richard Mühlfield’s virtuosity. This gave the composer a fresh surge of inspiration leading to the Clarinet Trio, Op. 114, the clarinet Sonatas, and the greatest of all, Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op.115. Violist Jonathan Bagg’s program note aptly describes its “Olympian stature” with “every movement fulfilling its traditional role with breathtaking power.”

I have heard the Ciompi Quartet play the Brahms Clarinet Quintet many times, beginning when Giorgio Ciompi led the players and his son, Arturo, was soloist, through many fine guest clarinetists and quartet personnel changes. Many of those performances as well as most of my favorite recordings could best be described “autumnal.” In this performance, with guest clarinetist Allan Ware, the Ciompi seemed to have given the score a fresh look, especially the first movement. If “autumnal” is taken to mean all the leaves have turned, the opening Allegro had only the first blush of change. There was plenty of intensity throughout this movement and the effect was like dusting off a well known object to reveal its full colors. The adagio was simply breathtaking and transfixing. Ware’s breath-control and seamless lines were amazing and the string support was subtle and fitted like a glove. The remaining two movements were given performances of equal merit.

After a hearty, prolonged standing ovation, Pritchard joked they would not encore the Kurtág again, but rather the trio portion from the second movement marked “Vivace,” from the Quintet t in A, Op. 146 of Max Reger (1873-1916). This was a lovely sampling of a work that ought to be better known.