The newest work on the program at the DaPonte String Quartet’s benefit concert at the Old Walpole Meeting House on Sunday re-created the oldest. The “Song of the Ch’in” by Zhou Long (b. 1953) echoes the oldest written music for stringed instrument, consisting not of a score but of instructions for the placement of the fingers on the strings to produce each note.

The quartet reproduced an authentic-sounding rendition of melodies for the ch’in, the instrument of scholars and sages, without the usual Oriental cliches and with a clarity that made it accessible to Western ears.

The program began with an arrangement for string quartet of an “Alleluia” by Randall Thompson (1899-1984), written for the opening of the Tanglewood Music Festival and still performed there.

What cellist Myles Jordan called the beginning of the string quartet was a set of fantasias by British composer Henry Purcell (1659-1695). Had that model been followed, instead of the more homophonic forms of Haydn, the musical world might have been very different.

Purcell models his fantasias on the complex polyphonic compositions then being written for voice. The result is a kind of super-quartet in which the voices are more clearly delineated and the dynamics more powerful than in a vocal work.

Unfortunately for posterity, stringed instruments were expensive and difficult to master for amateur musicians. By the time they became more popular, Purcell’s linear counterpoint had been displaced by the more harmonic style of composers, such as C. P. E. Bach, a son of Johann Sebastian Bach.

After intermission came an object lesson, Beethoven’s String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op. 1 – which proves that composers don’t know what they’re talking about. Beethoven considered it his finest work, although it was never performed in public until the 1920s.

It seems to have been Beethoven’s answer to Immanuel Kant, who rated music as the lowest of the arts because of its evanescence. The quartet is certainly not evanescent, but more like a brilliant guest who overstays his welcome. It has its moments, such as the opening fugue in four voices, a presto that certainly inspired Mendelssohn and a deeply soulful adagio. There may be some hidden formula that holds it together, but in general it sounds like an overly long pastiche, with some transcendent moments.

There were uncharacteristic lapses for the DaPonte – perhaps because they’d played the same program earlier in the day. They did no harm to a satisfying evening in a wonderful 1792 structure that seems to have been made for chamber music.

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

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