The Asheville Chamber Music Series hosted the globally renowned Ciompi Quartet, an ensemble founded by Giorgio Ciompi at Duke University in 1965. The legacy continues, with the current four members – first violinist Eric Pritchard, second violinist Hsaio-mei Ku, violist Jonathan Bagg, and cellist Fred Raimi – all holding faculty positions at the prestigious school. The quartet took on the incredibly challenging task of tackling music by three master composers, each from a different century.

The first selection, Haydn’s String Quartet in G Major, Op. 76, was from the 18th century, and a fitting opening since it was composed by none other than the creator of the ensemble as it is configured. The opening three chords were played with all the resonant brilliance one would expect to hear in a declamatory fanfare. However, Raimi’s opening gesture of Haydn’s elegantly cascading triadic melody was stilted and lacking in musical direction. Bagg somewhat compensated for this weak entrance in the cello, but Pritchard’s sharp intonation soon rendered the composer’s delightful interchange of the opening theme into a loosely connected web of discordance. The development, oddly enough, was played with more nuance and attention to intonation. The dynamic contrast and unison arpeggios which generate the musical excitement in this section were executed with brilliant vigor and an energetically focused sound.

In the second movement, what Raimi described as a “noble hymn,” Ku and Bagg provided a gently pulsating sixteenth-note ostinato with ethereal delicacy. Pritchard’s interpretation of the 32nd note scalar runs and syncopated octaves were technically impressive, but his forceful and at times overtly aggressive approach created a jarring contrast to the otherwise beautiful execution by the ensemble. The return to the hymn-like theme in the recapitulation was fortunately performed with musical maturity, Raimi’s chromatic countermelody resonating richly in the church.

In the third movement, the quartet’s reputation was finally validated. Pritchard offered an exemplary performance, his jaunty spiccato bowing on the opening melody contrasted with a delicate lyricism in the trio. The other three members provided marvelous accompaniment, their gentle pizzicato cradling Pritchard’s elevated arpeggios. Pritchard and Ku did an especially notable job exaggerating the dynamic contrasts in the opening melody, Haydn’s comically brilliant foreshadowing of the scherzo. The fourth movement was equally extraordinary, as each artist in the ensemble pushed forward in the energetic cavalcade of melodic imitation with unrelenting rhythmic accuracy and pitch-perfect (pun intended) intonation. This final movement’s opening in the parallel minor key was captured with a visceral intensity. The excursion back into the original key of G Major offered a luminescent contrast, the quartet’s rich timbre fusing into a glorious beam of sound.

The next selection was Shostakovich’s masterpiece, String Quartet in D-Flat Major, Op. 133. The haunting dodecaphonic gesture in the cello was played with dramatic conviction by Raimi, Bagg responding with a dark and majestically foreboding hue emanating from his viola. Raimi’s barbaric pizzicato accompaniment that followed was played with cerebral intensity, a perfect backdrop for Pritchard and Bagg’s development of the 12-tone row. The languid polyphonic dialogue among Raimi, Bagg, and Ku was performed with exceptional sensitivity, each performer entering gracefully and creating a radiant wall of sound. In the second movement, Raimi stood out once more with his powerful rendition of the descending spit-fire melodic line, perfectly capturing Shostakovich’s desperate pathos. The rapid frenzy of alternating sextuplets, dissonant rhythmic jabs, and menacing glissandi were brilliantly executed by all four players, jolting in the air in the room with an electric tension. This was only disrupted by the ensembles’ sensitive and seamless diminuendo, a transition to the more lyrical sections of the movement, which featured Bagg executing Shostakovich’s demanding double stops with commanding accuracy of pitch and clear tone. Raimi’s masterful understanding of the music was represented once more in his rendition of the composer’s tragically-laced melodic gestures. The awkward interval leaps proved no obstacle for Raimi, who coaxed a beautifully tense, weeping color from his cello. Ku and Pritchard should also be commended for their riveting violin duet near the end of the second movement, a skyrocketing fury of rapidly ascending pitches over which they never lost control.

Brahms’ String Quartet in B-Flat Major, Op. 67 (one of only three written by the composer), was a fitting finale, a cleverly constructed and crowd pleasing work. In the first movement, the players executed the deceptive syncopations, a rhythmic trademark of the composer, with persistent exactitude. The ensemble danced across their strings with relaxed precision, navigating the metric transitions from 6/8 to 2/4 with spritely charisma. From the onset of the second movement, a sumptuous sound arose from the ensemble, Raimi’s, Ku’s, and Bagg’s full-bodied tone reinforcing Pritchard’s sweet violin tone. In the middle section, where Brahms briefly divides the quartet in half (cello paired with viola and the two violins together, respectively), each duo seamlessly transferred the melody back and forth in a serene conversation. The final plagal cadence was sublimely gilded by Pritchard’s crystalline high F.

The third movement featured Bagg as a soloist, his warm vibrato and lyrical interpretation of the melody Sul C showcasing his musical sensitivity. Pritchard and Ku provided sublime accompaniment, always maintaining a supportive level of amplitude and only increasing in volume when playing the descending countermelody. The fourth movement showed a side of the ensemble this reviewer wishes they had demonstrated in the Haydn. Bagg once again shone, his first variation on the theme a beautifully meandering aria affirming his mastery of the viola. Pritchard’s nimble acrobatics in the second variation were a joy to observe and listen to as well. Raimi took the spotlight once more, as he glided across his A string with sonorous precision. When the theme of the first movement returned, Ku and Pritchard flawlessly executed the 16th note scalar passages, displaying the rhythmic connectivity of the ensemble. Ultimately, this rendition of the Brahms and the Shostakovich (both of which received well-deserved standing ovations), were only slightly marred by the sub-par performance of the opening of the Haydn.