It is a curious phenomenon that in the year 2009 it is still considered somewhat daring to program three “modern” works on the same program. The Ciompi Quartet, resident string quartet at Duke University, did just that for their final program of the academic year, given in the Nelson Music Room. Considering that the newest of these works, Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 5 in B Flat, was written nearly sixty years ago causes one to wonder when there will no longer be a need to justify such programming.

The Ciompi Quartet is no stranger to contemporary works, and they have been active patrons of young composers, several of whom were composition students at the Department of Music at Duke. In his excellent and enlightening program notes, cellist Fred Raimi addressed this “modern works” conundrum head on. Unless you are an ensemble that specializes in contemporary works, when Bartók, Hindemith, or Shostakovich is performed — and all were, on this occasion — it is usually buffered on both sides by standard repertoire that is safe and comforting. Here, the Ciompi Quartet tore down that wall.

Béla Bartók wrote a set of six string quartets during the first half of the 20th century that are still the Mt. Everest of quartets, interpretively and technically. The second of these, written in 1920, contains a method known as compound variations. Instead of each variation relying on the original theme, it uses the preceding variation as its source, thus compounding the effect. The Ciompi Quartet was especially captivating in the middle movement, which is a rhythmic minefield. Not only did they nail all the intricate meshing of the parts, but they also seemed to have the confidence and chops to play around with the rhythm, even at breakneck speed. Despite being the oldest of the three quartets on the program, it still feels like the one where you are taking your musical medicine.

Paul Hindemith wrote his Op. 22 string quartet for himself as a violist and several friends to play. Later on in his career he molded a very singular and distinctive sound that had quite not gelled at that point. The quartet is in five relatively brief movements, each one named with very precise German indications – are there any other kinds? The third movement is notable for its cello concerto-like opening, and Raimi tossed it off with great passion and skill. This quartet is the least angry and cerebral of the evening: “modern” music without tears – probably the reason it is Hindemith’s most played string quartet.

Shostakovich’s music, and especially his many works that to some degree are programmatic in describing the horrors of World War II, the Holocaust, and the Stalin regime, requires an enormous emotional commitment from musicians and audiences. His fifth quartet, written in 1951, is a perfect example of this. The Ciompi Quartet transcended the notes on paper, bowings, and fingering, and translated the great Russian’s passionate feelings of these 20th century horrors.  As is often the case in Shostakovich’s music, there is also often a sardonic, slightly crazed moment as if you had just landed in a Fellini film, and this contrast was played for all its insane effects.

So we survived this triple threat sans Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, or our other favorites, and with no apparent ill effects. For putting up with this “medicine,” and to celebrate another fabulous year of Ciompi Quartet concerts, we were all treated to a nicely catered reception afterwards.