Orchestra players, when they are in a grumpy mood, complain that, though they are highly trained professionals, their work turns them into cogs in a huge machine and that when they perform the miracles of synchronization necessary to create a great performance, someone standing silently on a podium waving a stick gets all the glory.

One way orchestras circumvent these frustrations is to encourage their players to form chamber groups within the ensemble. This is a win for all concerned. The players have the best of both worlds – the prestige of the orchestral jobs and the opportunity to explore repertory that puts their individual strengths more fully in the spotlight. For the orchestra, besides keeping the players happy, these ensembles further project the larger organizations branding.

The Philharmonia Quartett Berlin, formed in 1984, is made up of members of the Berlin Philharmonic. Daniel Stabrawa, the quartet’s first violinist, is one of the orchestra’s three rotating concertmasters, and Christian Stadelmann, the second violinist, is one of three principal second violinists. Violist Neithard Resa and cellist Dietmar Schwalke are members of their respective sections. (Next season, Portland Ovations will present the Berlin Philhamonic’s wind players.)

The quartet came to Hannaford Hall on Sunday afternoon, courtesy of Portland Ovations, with a program that was not only a demonstration of chamber playing at its highest level, but also underscored the ways composers think differently about chamber and orchestral works.

Composers like Beethoven and Shostakovich, who were each represented on Sunday by late works, created their orchestral scores as grand public pronouncements, cast in bold strokes and full of sharp contrasts, and eventually came to regard their chamber works (especially their quartets) as decidedly more personal statements – the equivalents of diary pages or heart-to-heart talks with a close friend.

The third composer on the program, Mozart, is a different case. Almost all his music embraces both public and private elements, and the work the Berlin musicians played, the Quartet No. 8 in F major (K. 168), is an early score – composed when Mozart was 16 – that is bright and outgoing, and has all the hallmarks of a piece meant for public entertainment.

That, at least, is how it looks at a glance. But the ensemble’s performance, which was warm, precise and the picture of textural transparency, uncovered other layers, too, including evidence of the young Mozart’s musical fascinations. His most immediate influence, here, is generally said to have been Haydn. Yet the Berlin players’ reading of the Andante, a dark, focused canon, revealed an almost Bachian formality. And if the courtly, Haydnesque Menuetto has you wondering whether the Bach connection was just your imagination, the brisk finale – a spirited fugue – pulls you back into Bach’s world.

It was a huge leap from the cheerful innocence of Mozart to the dour intensity of Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 15 in E-flat minor (Op. 144), the composer’s final work in the form, completed in 1974, a year before his death. All six of its movements are Adagios, and the fifth is a funeral march, but within its unremittingly bleak, mournful contours, there is considerable variety – theme fragments that make their way around the circle of players, idiosyncratic waltz figures, violin soliloquies, and dynamic bursts – that capture the anger, frustration and depression that plagued Shostakovich through a career of dealing with the demands of, and harassment by, Soviet officialdom.

The players captured the work’s simmering anger and disappointment vividly, and with a kind of virtuosic restraint, before turning their attention to Beethoven’s Quartet No. 15 in A minor (Op. 132). Like Shostakovich, Beethoven was nearing the end of his life when he composed the work, and he also had reason to be bitter (his deafness not least among them). But if an undercurrent of tragedy comes through the opening movement, Beethoven’s defiance comes through, too. Its slow movement, a soulful prayer of thanksgiving after recovering from a severe illness, is the pivot here; the movements that follow are bright and energetic.

The Berlin musicians gave the Beethoven piece an artful, prismatic and, most of all, impeccably balanced performance and offered some early Beethoven – the light-spirited Scherzo of the String Quartet No. 6 (Op. 18, No. 6) – as an encore.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at:

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