Within the breast of every orchestral player abides a chamber musician waiting to get out. For many artists, this is the most purely satisfying form of classical-music endeavor -- a sort of intimate, melodic give-and-take that was once memorably defined by Goethe as a "discourse between reasonable individuals."
On Sunday afternoon at the Terrace Theater, the discourse was reasonable indeed. The Kennedy Center Chamber Players, which consists of members of the National Symphony Orchestra, opened its second season with a beautiful and disparate program of music by Sergey Prokofiev, Johannes Brahms and Antonin Dvorak.
Prokofiev's Sonata in C for Two Violins (Op. 56) strikes me as one of his best pieces, especially as it was played by Marissa Regni and Nurit Bar-Josef. The composer took on an abstract challenge: How do you make interesting a work for two unadorned instruments with the same sonic qualities and capacities? He answered this question with four distinct movements that called upon the players to blend, contrast, mimic and refute one another by turn. At first, Regni had the high, sweet material, underpinned by Bar-Josef, who was busy exploring the throbbing lower registers of the instrument, but they traded off repeatedly throughout the piece and the results were both musically and intellectually engaging.
Johannes Brahms spent much of his last decade fashioning chamber music for clarinet: His admiration for the playing of Richard Muhlfeld ultimately led to two sonatas, one quintet and one trio featuring the instrument, masterworks all. It would be hard to imagine a finer performance of the Trio in A Minor for Clarinet, Cello and Piano, Op. 114, than the one played on Sunday by Loren Kitt, David Hardy and Lambert Orkis. Kitt soared soulfully and introspectively through this melancholy but sun-dappled score; Orkis provided eager, lustrous, extroverted pianism that seemed a natural complement. And Hardy played with a songful steadiness that was both immaculately elegant and ripe with feeling.
What a difference the addition of a couple of instruments can make! In comparison with the works by Prokofiev and Brahms, Dvorak's Quintet in A for Piano and Strings sounds positively symphonic. Here, Bar-Joset, Regni, Hardy and Orkis were joined by the violist Daniel Foster for a happy, collegial and warmhearted performance that permitted the listener to marvel anew at the sheer moment-to-moment pleasure Dvorak provides, with his melodies that it seems we remember from another lifetime, his brimming sentiment that never descends into sentimentality. It was a good afternoon to have been at the Terrace Theater.