It was the final celebration of the 40th season of the Ciompi Quartet, a superb showcase of the extraordinary musicianship of the four members and their guests. The date was April 16, the place was the Nelson Music Room, and the evening's big work was the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, Op. 115, by Johannes Brahms, one of only a handful of works for this combination and a work that is, perhaps, the essence of Brahms. Having previously known the work only on recordings, it was a real ear-opener for me to hear this stunningly beautiful composition live. This was an experience that, given the performance, immediately elevated my perception of the work from the status of mere admiration to the memorable-masterpiece category. Written in 1892, when Brahms had only five years remaining in his life, it is a work of such beauty, serenity, and transcendence that if it had no effect on you, then you'd better check your heartbeat.
The Ciompi Quartet was joined by clarinetist Allan Ware, a native of Raleigh who now resides in Germany. He has performed with the Ciompi Quartet many times in the past, and you could immediately sense the musical comraderie.
One of the many intriguing aspects of this work is the subtle technique of orchestration that Brahms employs with the addition of just one clarinet to the string quartet. At times it sounds like there is some other instrument present – such is the skill of the composer. The very different sounding registers of the clarinet and great dynamic variations are combined with the strings to create a nearly unending palette of sounds and colors. Of course, it takes a master clarinetist – like Ware, with his especially beautiful pianissimo playing – to realize this and to help bring it all to life. (These artists also played the Brahms in Raleigh, on April 10, so some lucky souls got to hear it twice!)
In a month when the whole country was aware of a certain local basketball team, it is a shame that the same can't be said about a performance like this! Pride in the arts should be just as visible as pride in sports accomplishments, and it would be great to shout that we have musicians every bit as good as New York, Boston, San Francisco, or anywhere else.
Leading up to the Brahms was a first half unusual in that it contained three complete works. The evening began with what may be the least played of the Beethoven quartets. Subtitled "Serioso," it straddles between the "middle" and "late" quartets. The subtitle is quite appropriate, although "angry" might be just as accurate. The opening statements say it all. Quick, violent, stabbing outbursts in the opening theme cry out for some respite, yet the anguish only seems to grow. You can almost hear Beethoven shaking his fists and screaming at the heavens. This is a work that requires both rock-solid technique and sympathetic emotional involvement among the players. It was evident from the beginning that all cylinders were firing and this was the start of what would be an evening of power and beauty.
If you read the German tempo markings of each movement and then Fred Raimi's program notes on Anton Webern's Six Bagatelles, the music would probably have been over before you finished reading. Lasting only 3-1/2 minutes, these little works are the essence of the 12-tone style of composition. Despite the bad rap most of this music gets even to this day, Webern's miniatures are impeccably crafted and surprisingly melodic. As one of the players told me, the time spent working on the Bagatelles was inversely proportional to their running time. However, the final product was well worth it. The playing of these compact musical statements seemed natural and inevitable, belying their technical difficulties. Unlike many compositions, these left you wanting more.
The Argentinean composer Osvaldo Golijov has already become one of our most influential composers, noted especially for works for ensembles such as the St. Lawrence String Quartet, which appeared at Duke last season. Although not a world premiere, this Durham performance of his "Tenebrae," for soprano, clarinet, and string quartet, was one of the few since its birth in 2002. Written as a combination of Jewish mysticism and as a means for viewing objects from different perspectives, this highly emotional piece of music affected everyone in the audience. Golijov is able to write lush harmonies without becoming cloying, and he creates an atmosphere of intense feeling that transcends specific religious or cultural backgrounds.
My only critique of the performance is that soprano Carol Saint-Clair was not the best voice type for this style. She was a bit too operatic and overpowering when the voice needed to be just one of the textures.
At the conclusion of "Tenebrae" there was a rare first-half standing ovation, and there was also much glowing talk during the break. All told, this was another triumph for the Ciompi Quartet and yet another example of the group's inventive programming. We are looking forward to their 41st year.