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Even the best of friends need a break from each other, so despite the name of this series – "Ciompi Quartet Presents" – each of these four concerts had a single member of Duke University's celebrated chamber music ensemble as the featured player and emcee, of sorts. For the final program in this series, it was cellist Fred Raimi, a member of the Ciompi Quartet since 1974, who served up an eclectic mix of chamber music in a program called "3 Works by 3 Composers Played by 4 Friends and 1 Couple." I ran the numbers and validated the relationships and everything seems to check out.
Danger warnings in the hour leading up to the start of this concert screamed out from all media outlets regarding severe weather, so I was not sure when I arrived at Kirby Horton Hall at the Sarah P. Duke Gardens that the performance would take place, but the room was packed. Chamber music lovers are a hardy lot, not to be deterred by flash flood warnings and severe thunderstorms with 50 mph winds.
Whether by design or not, the programming increased by one musician for each successive work played. The opener featured the "1 Couple" designation in a spectacular performance of Claude Debussy's Sonata for Cello and Piano. Joining cellist Raimi was the other half of the couple and chair of the Department of Music at Duke University, pianist Jane Hawkins. Written in 1915, Debussy's only solo work for the cello was to be the first of a set of six sonatas for various instruments, but he followed up with only a violin sonata and another for flute, viola, and harp, before his death in 1918. Despite the relative brevity of this work (12-14 minutes), it is a magnificent microcosm of Debussy's compositional style as well as a technical and interpretive challenge for both players. This work employs nearly every possible cellistic effect, but it is all done with fidelity to the inner life of the music and not to be showy. There are three movements, but the second and third are connected as one. It's impossible to write about Debussy without using the dreaded "I" word – Impressionism – and this work is no different. Those ethereal, formless, Monet-set-to-music sounds belie the difficulty of attaining that heightened sense of ease and liquidity. Hawkins is masterful in evoking this spirit as you float along on her transcendent technique and musicianship. Raimi played as if this had been written for him and he was a conduit from Debussy's mind to the audience's ears. Combine all that with an acoustic in the hall that somehow seemed to combine a rich lively sound with a separation of the instruments and you had an experience that bordered on rapturous.
Pity the poor string trio (violin, viola, cello). For whatever reasons, it has always seemed to fight a losing battle for respect with works written for its more popular relatives, the string quartet and piano trio. Beethoven's Opus 9 consists of three string trios, and despite their being the equal of any of his early works, they seem to be treated as an afterthought. The performance of the first of these, in G major, should have sparked interest in those not familiar with this/these neglected gems. Joining Raimi were two of the friends, violinist Jennifer Curtis and violist Kirsten Swanson. Written at the very end of the 18th century, this is a typical classical period form but already soaked in the earmarks of Beethoven's developing style. The adagio is especially poignant and points towards those of his fifth piano concerto and violin concerto. Curtis and Swanson, both consummate professionals with the highest musical pedigrees, teamed with Raimi to produce a sense of great ensemble as well as individual clarity. The final presto really gave them a chance to boast of their prodigious technique in a charming and flashy romp that sounds a bit like an homage to Haydn.
The performer population grew to four and all friends and couples come together for the big finale: Gabriel Fauré's Quartet for Piano, Violin, Viola, and Cello in c minor, Op. 15. Although there are certainly many more that have been written, the piano quartet has about 6-8 works in its arsenal that get regularly played, and Fauré's first is deservedly in that elite group. Completed in 1879, it is perhaps Fauré's chamber music masterpiece and although still far from Debussy, it already has traces of an Impressionistic flavor, or at least a distinct and unique Frenchness. This is a major four-movement work that also can sound a bit like Brahms, particularly in the opening Allegro movement. The scherzo, uncharacteristically for Fauré, is a decidedly virtuosic showpiece for all four instruments, and this foursome not only handled it but seemed to be having a blast playing. As if to say, "please don't hate us because we can play cleanly at ungodly speeds," the adagio was a triumph of sensitivity, phrasing, and gorgeous tone.
I am a strong believer that live concerts are as much a visual as aural experience. If given the choice, I will always opt for a good and close view since you can always hear a great performance but it's not everyday that you can actually watch, let's say, Yo-Yo Ma play a few feet from you. Which is why it's unusual that I enjoy concerts at Kirby Hall. The acoustics, especially for strings, is simply stunning – possibly the best I've heard. But, their sightlines are horrible, despite different seating configurations. It's not unusual to not be able to see anything, except occasionally a waving bow. For those in power at this venue, how about a removable raised platform that can be brought in for these concerts?