A young string quartet made its local debut in Carswell Concert Hall at Meredith College on a cold, wet Friday evening. The ensemble, named Cordova,* was formed two years ago by then-Rice students. It’s now in residence at the University of Texas at Austin, where its members work with the Miró Quartet, frequent visitors here.

Apparently the Cordova Quartet performs under the umbrella of Incontri Musicali, Italian for musical encounter(s). So, too, does soprano Yekaerina Gruzglina, whom the instrumentalists met at Rice and whose bio appears below the quartet’s, here. Violinist Niccoló Muti serves as artistic director of Incontri Musicali, an Italian festival promoting the work of young musicians from throughout the world.

Promotional materials suggested that the concert at Meredith was the US debut of Incontri…, and that may have been true, but the quartet itself has been playing fairly often in this country, including a recent appearance at a concert in Greenville, following a chamber music workshop there.

The ensemble members, in addition to Muti, are Andy Liang, violin, Blake Turner, viola, and Matt Kufchak, cello. They’re listed in their FaceBook page, but for some reason the names were not in the program.

The concert began with a splendid reading of Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 10 in which keen technical abilities and readily-apparent enthusiasm for making music together were immediately obvious. Balance and blend were superb, and the inner voices emerged with striking clarity. Muti played first violin in this, but he was hardly alone in his animated approach to the profoundly moving and engaging score. The players seemed to creep into Shostakovich’s skin in this, and the results were quite rewarding.

Muti would appear to have obtained some of violinist Geoff Nutall’s socks, perhaps as a good-luck gift upon the occasion of the current tour. Or maybe those wild socks are just a leftover Charleston thing.

The violinists switched chairs for the evening’s second quartet and concluding work, Beethoven’s Quartet No. 9, known as the third Rasumofsky quartet (because it and its opus mates were dedicated to a Russian count of that name). The playing was again at a very high level, with the second movement exceptionally impressive, the third one elegant and finely polished, and the finale, a whirlwind of tightly-controlled virtuosity.

In between came two lovely groups of Russian songs, starting with four (of six) songs to texts by Anna Akhmatova as set by John Tavener (b.1944), whose music invariably sounds much, much older than one might think it should, and ending with four songs by Rachmaninoff, given with accompaniments arranged for string quartet by Muti himself. (They weren’t credited in the program but were good enough that they ought to have been.) The impressive singer is listed as a soprano and has a high albeit richly-colored top register, but her lower voice is every bit as ravishing. She’s from Ukraine via New Jersey (as a child); the Russian words sounded totally convincing, and she injected these pieces with palpable emotion. There were no texts, since the Russian alphabet is not readily available on most PCs and since most Americans can’t read it anyway. There were translations for the Tavener songs – little vignettes on Dante and Boris Pasternak, a couplet, and a crushingly dark piece on death, all the texts dating from a very dark period in Soviet life – but not for the Rachmaninoff, which were briefly introduced by the singer. Here, however, the printed words didn’t matter, as the hall was kept in sepulchral darkness. This writer favors texts in all instances when vocal music is performed (including English) and translations, of course, for foreign pieces, but illumination is essential, too!

So this basically all-Russian program of Shostakovich, Russian songs, and a Beethoven masterwork penned for a Russian proved richly rewarding to the near-capacity audience in Carswell. Here’s hoping this group will be back here soon!

Muti served as the evening’s spokesperson. Area residents will perhaps remember his birth here in Raleigh when his father was at Duke. As an infant he was often seen in Baldwin Auditorium while Dad conducted there. Mom is a flutist and long-time administrator at Ravenscroft. Both live in Charleston, SC, now, where this program will be repeated on Sunday, January 25. For details of that, click here. But they maintain a regular presence in our region, too, since Muti père is music director of the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle, in which Muti mère generally plays – as does, from time to time, Muti fils.

Many of us tend not to think of Texas as a bastion of culture, aside from the late Van Cliburn and the Dixie Chicks, so it’s curious we’ve had performances of two outstanding chamber groups from the Lone Star State in recent weeks here in Raleigh. For a review of Houston-based WindSync, click here.

*The Cordova is a famous hotel in Florence, Italy, but whether that’s the source of this name is unclear. Perhaps the artists will enlighten us?