In spite of the fact that there were home games at Duke, UNC and NCSU, a good turnout of devoted music lovers enjoyed the warm acoustics of Duke University’s Nelson Music Room on Saturday. The Duke Music Department recital featured cellist Fred Raimi, a longtime member of the Ciompi Quartet, accompanied on piano by his wife, Jane Hawkins, an equally internationally renowned musician.

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) was both a violin teacher and house composer at the Pietà, the most famous of the four ospedali, “hospitals,” for orphaned and abandoned illegitimate children in the city state of Venice. The Pietà admitted only girls, and the musically talented were assiduously trained since their concerts were a major source of income and international fame. Having a large body of skilled musicians with nowhere to go gave Vivaldi the ideal laboratory for free rein of his creativity.

Vivaldi composed a total of ten sonatas for cello and basso continuo. One is completely lost. Three exist only in manuscript and the remaining six were printed in a 1740 French edition. This was rediscovered by Marguerite Chaigneau in 1916. Sonata No. 5 in E minor, RV. 40 is one of the more popular. Vivaldi structured these sonatas in the four-movement “Sonata da chiesa” form: slow-fast-slow-fast. No. 5 consists of Largo, Allegro, Larghetto, and Allegro.

Raimi’s succinct program notes drew attention to the Larghetto. This movement, a dance form of a siciliano, was used by director Stanley Kubrick for an extended love scene in the movie Barry Lyndon. Besides making much use of the cello’s lyric quality, Vivaldi exploits contrast for effect whether it be dynamics (loud/soft), modes (major/minor), rhythms (binary/ternary), or the treatment of reprises.

While Raimi and Hawkins played on modern instruments, they clearly used one of the better modern editions that eschewed an elaborate continuo line. Hawkins scaled down her Steinway to a mostly spare and hushed harmonic support to the cello’s complex line and richer text. Raimi made the most of the composer’s menu of effects. Reprises were often pp restatements of the original. Soaring highs were juxtaposed against full, rich lows. A few slips aside, intonation and articulation were excellent. Raimi’s spinning out of the third movement’s seamless serenade above Hawkins steady bass notes was the highlight of the piece.

The Sonata in G minor, S. 1029 by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was originally composed for the viola da gamba. This instrument has six strings at a lower tension than a cello’s and possesses a sonority between the modern viola and cello. Although it was already becoming obsolete, it was the instrument mastered by Bach’s patron, the prince of Cöthen. The sonata is most often heard in an arrangement for cello and piano. In three movements (Vivace, Adagio, and Allegro), Bach scores the keyboard part with a full array of challenges. Raimi and Hawkins chose a tempo for the first movement that allowed them to bring out the complex polyphony. Time seemed to stand still as each wove and interwove each instruments’ gorgeous melody in the middle movement. The virtues of their playing of the first movement held throughout the lively finale.

Like his string quartets, the cello sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven easily fit the labeling of early, middle, and late periods. Sonata in C, Op.102, No. 1 clearly fits in his late period and is in two movements (Andante – Allegro vivace and Adagio-Tempo d’andante – Allegro vivace). Beethoven’s writing in this work was heavily influenced by his interest in the discipline imposed by the use of fugues and with the use of open-ended forms. In this very experimental sonata, both movements are prefaced by slow introductions – unique among his works. He plays with a “foreign key” in the first allegro and juxtaposes quiet meditation against rhythmic ferocity. The second slow introduction serves as a quick transition into the contrapuntal and lively finale.*

The give-and-take between Raimi and Hawkins throughout this sonata was marvelous. Their phrasing was stylish. Balance between players was excellent. Both players conjured a rich palette of instrumental tone. Raimi has always been a fine interpreter of Beethoven’s dramatic intensity and this performance swept along (a brief snafu aside, skillfully recovered) to a fully satisfying conclusion that earned repeated curtain calls.

*I made heavy use of the excellent program notes by Misha Donst for the Decca recording of Beethoven: Complete Works for Piano & Cello by Alfred Brendel and Adrian Brendel.