In the cool and relaxed setting of the Doris Duke Center at the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, the renowned Ciompi Quartet, with pianist Jane Hawkins and hornist Nancy Billman, presented a full evening of delicious Brahms. The room was packed with several folks standing as the concert began.
The program opened with Fred Raimi and Hawkins teaming up for a moving performance of the Sonata in D Major, Op. 78, for cello and piano. (It is Brahms' transcription of the first violin sonata). It was a partnership of elegant interplay between the artists. Raimi at times seemed somewhere far away, so deep in the music that he was living it. Hawkins was with him every step of the way through the tuneful first movement and the rather wistful second movement. The third movement began with a wonderfully playful passage but ultimately ended calmly and at peace. Brahms' unique ability to provide chamber music that sounds bigger that the small resources employed was well demonstrated here. Rich harmony in the piano and chordal arpeggios along with sweeping melodies or racing tones from the cello were all executed with artful skill and intensity.
The String Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 51/1 (along with its companion, No. 2) was composed sometime between 1865 and 1873 and demonstrates Brahms the craftsman. He uses all his musical skill and mentality to mold a work of phenomenal unity. He takes care to use every bit of thematic material in a meaningful way. The middle movements are as weighty as the dramatic opening and the remarkable final movement, which seems to head in a new direction toward the end only to return to its home key and conclude in a climactic fury. Much of the work is agitated and driven with few moments of relief. Most notable is the 6/8 passage toward the end of the third movement which provides a charming diversion before the power of the closing movement exerts itself insistently. This is music that the Ciompi Quartet captured without taming and delivered in all the intensity its composer intended. Magnificent!
The closing selection, the Trio for Piano, Violin and Horn, brought together Hawkins, violinist Eric Pritchard and Billmann for the purpose of charming and entrancing the audience. The horn trio is unusual in form, beginning with a tender and lyrical slow movement, followed by a delightful romping Scherzo: Allegro. The third movement is another slow movement with tremendous emotional power and some gorgeous imitative passages in the middle section. The work closes with a return to the sprightly skipping theme and takes it to even more exciting heights. Billmann's horn playing was golden, warm and crisp as called for in Brahms' score. Pritchard, as we have come to expect, was precise, technically solid, and musically inspired. Hawkins played with fire in her fingers, which provided both warmth and light. Their unanimity of direction and purpose brought this music to amazing life and the audience loved it. Leaving this magical music behind when we departed the Sarah Duke Gardens was impossible. Even as I write this, I hear it dancing in my head.
The concert was part of Duke Performances "Summer Music in the Gardens" series, which includes an enticing variety of artists and styles of music.