Another season of “Ciompi Quartet Presents” at the lovely, lively, and rustic Kirby Horton Hall at the Sarah P. Duke Gardens has completed and, again, there was a sold-out house for a creatively programmed evening of chamber music. For those not familiar with this three-concert summer series, one of the members of Duke University‘s Ciompi Quartet serves as leader of sorts, and invites other musicians to play along in a relatively informal and relaxed atmosphere. Tonight was cellist Fred Raimi‘s turn as he presented a program titled “Three Bs in a Minor Key.” If you think about it, classical music is filled with composers whose last name begins with “B,” but this program’s works were from the trio of masters: Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. To make the concert even more interesting, all of the works played – while certainly not rare or unknown – are definitely underplayed as compared with the other chamber works of each composer.

I was a bit disappointed that missing from the evening was program notes by Raimi – always a well-written and unique take on the compositions. A brief background on the first piece would have gone a long way in helping clarify some historical facts about what was titled Sonata for Cello and Piano in G minor by J.S. Bach. This was actually the last of three sonatas written by Bach for viola da gamba and keyboard. While somewhat similar to a modern cello, the gamba is quite different in its strings, tuning, fingerboard, and even how the bow is held. Having said that, it has become a staple for cellists and the three sonatas are wonderful works. You can dismiss any question of nepotism as Raimi invited Jane Hawkins to play piano on this and the Brahms quartet. It is abundantly clear that her recently completed tenure as chair of the music department at Duke has not caused any ill effects on her phenomenal playing and elegant musicianship. It seemed to take a few measures until they agreed on a tempo, but they eventually came to that infectious “Baroque swing” that makes Bach a favorite of so many jazz players. The Adagio is a study in long lines and beautiful sound and phrasing, and this is where Raimi shines. The sound of his cello seemed to be emanating from the beautiful woods of the hall – perhaps they matched those of his ancient cello!

One would think that the string trio – consisting of one each of violin, cello, and viola – would have more well-known works, but it is no match for the string quartet or piano trio. It still seems like a well-kept secret that Beethoven’s Opus 9 is made up of three fabulous string trios. These are forward looking works despite having all been written prior to 1800. The third, in C minor and written in 1798, was played by Raimi and two guests. Violist Kirsten Swanson is a North Carolina native who has played at Duke numerous times. She brings a beautiful rich viola sound, impeccable technique, and savvy interaction to any ensemble. The violinist, for this and the Brahms, was Rolf Schulte. This was the first time I had heard him play, and his quite impressive biography made me eager to hear the performances.

Within moments of the start of the Beethoven trio, you could sense a sort of telepathic murmuring spreading across the room. Schulte holds his bow in an extremely unorthodox manner: somewhere between one-third to one-half up the length of the bow. I have spoken to several experienced violinists since, and no one can say why this would be. Although I have seen some HIP (Historically Informed Performance) players hold their bow a little above the frog, this was quite excessive. That by itself was not the main issue. Schulte has more than ample technique, nearly flawless intonation, and precise rhythmic playing, but there was a facet of his playing which dominated the entire performance: any loud, or even semi-loud playing on his part was so aggressive, attacking, harsh, and, to my ears, without any thought as to how his sound fit in with the music and the other players, that it spoiled much of the performance for me. While I was sitting on the side of the room where Schulte was playing, I had trouble hearing Swanson’s viola, even when she had featured passages.

The Finale featured another lesser child of the string quartet and piano trio: violin, viola, cello, and piano joining forces in a piano quartet. Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 3 in C minor, Op. 60 ranks with his first symphony as far as Brahms’ anguishing over its release to the public and spending years in revisions. Although completed in 1874, it had its genesis almost twenty years earlier, and much of it was influenced by the mental illness of his good friend Robert Schumann and his relationship with Clara.

This quartet is in a standard four-movement format and is unmistakably Brahms from the first few measures. Notwithstanding the issue described above and even moments where the violin actually drowned out a Steinway grand piano playing fortissimo, this was a performance of exquisite passion and a full spectrum of emotion. Hawkins brushed away the fiendishly difficult piano part and simultaneously played with great emotional depth while instantly adapting to the rhythmic ebb and flow of the strings. Certainly not light summer fare, but a glowing reminder that the level of chamber music performances in the Triangle rivals that of anywhere else.