Béla Bartók’s String Quartet No. 3 may have seemed like an interloper on the DaPonte String Quartet‘s program at the Maine Jewish Museum on Thursday night – an explosion of dissonances and brash bowing techniques amid more conventional bookends by Mozart and Brahms.

But the point of the quartet’s program, “What Goes Around … ,” was that the three works, composed between 1783 and 1927, share more than you might expect. The proposition can be debated either way, as many of this quartet’s themes can be. That is one of the attractions of this group’s programming: The proposed themes almost demand to be challenged, rather than blithely accepted, and whether or not you come around to the ensemble’s way of thinking, its provocations keep you pondering the works and the relationships between them, long after the last note has faded away.

In this case, you could argue that all three works were written when their composers lived in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire – Mozart and Brahms in Vienna, Bartók in Budapest – and that they all draw, at some point, on either folk themes or dance rhythms, or adhere to some variation of traditional Western structures. But that is a net so wide as to be nearly meaningless.

Miles Jordan, the ensemble’s cellist and resident scholar, raised the subject of organicism in his introduction to the concert and noted that each of the works grows from small thematic kernels that expand into grand structures. He has a point, but my guess is that for many listeners – even those who have no problem with Bartók’s reconsideration of harmony and technique – the question of musical language dwarfs all the others, separately and combined.

Mozart and Brahms, though neither would be mistaken for the other, share a common notion of how harmony works – what was allowed or not, and what listeners would understand, both intellectually and emotionally, when they heard passages harmonized in particular ways. The differences between them are evolutionary, like the differences between Shakespearean and modern English. Bartók’s language, at least in the quartets, was decisively and unapologetically revolutionary.

To some extent, the interpretations were shaped by the thematic argument. Mozart’s Quartet No. 16 in E flat major (K. 428), one of the six quartets Mozart dedicated to Haydn, is often played with a sense of courtly decorum, but the DaPonte’s reading, which shared the first half of the program with the Bartók, had a gritty, hard-driven undercurrent that carried a hint of Mozart’s more rebellious, free-spirited side.

Their approach, which prized sharp articulation, particularly in the Menuetto, and broad contrasts (in, for example, weight and color) between adjacent passages, in both the opening movement and the finale, was never so overstated that Mozart’s structural formality seemed parodistic. But it was presented strongly enough that the performance left you feeling that there was much more there than at first meets the ear, and that however well you know the work, there are levels left to explore.

The players – violinists Ferdinand Liva and Lydia Forbes, violist Kirsten Monke and cellist Jordan – gave an energizing, unvarnished account of the Bartók, and to their credit, they found touches of magic in the wispy effects and chordal slides that Bartók contrasted with more vigorous, even brutal passages. And though the work is now 90 years old, the musicians kept its revolutionary spirit and freshness fully in focus.

Putting Brahms’ Quartet No. 3 in B flat major (Op. 67), composed in 1875, on the second half freed the group from the temptation to present it as a station on the road between its rambunctious reading of the Mozart and the rigors of the Bartók. Instead, they gave the work a graceful, relaxed, occasionally hot-blooded reading, presenting it as a fluid score, tidily framed by a horn call figure, with a meltingly beautiful theme and variations finale.

For some, the Brahms must have seemed like a balm after the Bartók, and they weren’t wrong. But for anyone caught up in the overarching theme, it was hard not to hear the work in context, as an exquisite essay in a musical language that would change radically over the next half-century.

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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