The DaPonte String Quartet has produced exactly what the holiday season needs, a breath of fresh, cold air. Their concert Friday, at St. Mary the Virgin Church in Falmouth, centered upon Benjamin Britten’s String Quartet No. 3, Opus 94, which includes material from his “Death in Venice.”

The quartet, Britten’s last — he died before hearing it performed — is harsh, forceful and profound, and if its final movement provides a lifting of the spirit, against all odds, it does so without the slightest hint of sentimentality.

It was framed by Haydn’s darkly colored String Quartet Opus 20, No. 5 in F minor, and Beethoven’s “Serioso” Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Opus 95.

This is the first time the DaPonte has performed in St. Mary’s church during its regular season, and the acoustics of the historic granite building reinforced its strengths. (The program also was performed Sunday at the Presbyterian Church in Topsham.)

The Britten quartet begins and ends with water. He is not only a master of seascapes, as in his opera “Peter Grimes,” but also of small boat sounds — oars, knocking on the hull, splashes and wakes. These are particularly effective in the Venetian gondola scenes.

The quartet basically follows the scenario of Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice,” a homoerotic novella that traces the doomed pursuit of perfect beauty, in the form of a Polish boy, by an elderly aristocrat.

One of its themes is the question of whether an ideal, Platonic, beauty is possible without some earthly admixture of sensuality or the erotic. Britten answers the question in the negative in the third movement of the quartet, with the indications “Solo: very calm.”

It consists of a striking violin solo that is deliberately without affect, as if played by a machine — coldly beautiful and totally inhuman. Lydia Forbes’ performance of this novel section, few versions of which ever realize its intent, was spine-tingling.

The burlesque that follows is a danse macabre in the style of Shostakovich, illustrating the reverse of the coin, that “the sleep of reason breeds monsters.” As performed by the DaPonte quartet, it conjured up black demons dancing around a pyre, as well as British music-hall turns. The unison playing was spectacular.

The finale is a gondola ride to Hades, ferried by the boatman of the Styx, Charon, with oar strokes slow and inevitable. A Venetian mist hangs over the vessel, an indication of the spirit, eventually realized as an ascending scale that never reaches its fulfillment and vanishes, leaving merely a possibility.

It is Britten’s “Death and Transfiguration,” but more real, and effective, than the Strauss tone poem.

After this tremendous Christmas gift, the quartet’s fine and sensitive renderings of Haydn and Beethoven had to be relegated in memory to second place.

The complexity and power of the fugue in the Haydn quartet, however, stayed in the mind as extraordinary.

Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at:

[email protected]