Deep in the Portland String Quartet’s past – in the mid-1980s – the ensemble recorded all of Ernest Bloch’s quartets (as well as his piano quintets) for Arabesque, an enterprising, independent label. The recordings were well-played and carefully produced, and they brought attention to a superb but neglected body of music. They also considerably expanded the ensemble’s national profile.

The group revisited one of the Bloch works, the exquisitely dark-hued Quartet No. 2 (1945) at its concert on Sunday afternoon at Woodfords Congregational Church. On a different program, it would have been the uncontested highlight, but the competition was stiff here: The second half of the program was devoted to Beethoven’s Quartet in A minor (Op. 132), one of the peaks of the chamber music repertory. Haydn’s Quartet in C (Op. 33, No. 3), which opened the program, is also a substantial work, but in this company it receded quickly into the background, as if it were merely a pleasant curtain raiser.

Bloch, a Swiss-born American composer who thrived in the first half of the 20th century, is best known for a handful of works on Jewish themes, most notably the popular “Schelomo,” for cello and orchestra, the violin work “Baal Shem,” and the large scale “Sacred Service.” His language in these pieces is inviting and accessible, with big, post-Romantic textures built around the modal, Hebraic themes that give the music its color and character.

In his quartets, though, Bloch’s goals, and his means of achieving them, were quite different. The Quartet No. 2, in particular, shows Bloch experimenting with the 12-tone techniques that Arnold Schoenberg and his followers had been exploring since the 1920s.

Bloch was not a doctrinaire 12-toner. He used the technique to generate angular, unpredictable themes, but his sensibilities often led him to break free of Schoenberg’s rules. His interest here was not abstraction; on the contrary, this melancholy quartet is unrelenting in its emotional intensity and drama. Those qualities might have made it difficult to bear were it not for Bloch’s structural inventiveness and capacity to move in surprising directions, thematically and texturally.

The ensemble – Dean Stein and Ronald Lantz, violinists; Julia Adams, violist; and Patrick Owen, cellist – responded to the work’s inner tensions and structural fluidity with a thrilling performance. They should consider recording it again: Half the group’s roster has changed in the 31 years since the recording was released, and its sound is now warmer and richer than it was in those days.

The quartet opened the program on a lighter note. Its Haydn selection was a model of late 18th-century gracefulness, with a playful edge, most notably in the bird-call figures that give the piece its nickname, “The Birds.” The performance was trim and spirited, with the work’s extremes of delicacy and vigorousness presented more frequently in gradations of timbre, weight and dynamics than in stark contrasts.

A similar flexibility, though on a much grander scale, illuminated the Beethoven, a work that begins with a slow passage that the quartet played with an irresistibly veiled, gauzy tone. That haunting introduction melts quickly into a brisk Allegro, but Beethoven’s meditations keep him from settling in a single mood for very long. This poses a considerable challenge for musicians, although for listeners, Beethoven’s frequent changes of spirit can be either a fascinating glimpse into the psyche of an aging, deaf composer, or more straightforwardly, an exciting, unpredictable ride through a score etched in virtuosic changeability.

From either perspective, the ensemble’s rendering was focused and gripping, nowhere more so than in the central slow movement, the “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit” (“Song of Thanksgiving to Almighty God on recovering from an illness”). Here, the players produced a magnificently controlled sound that touched the core of this impassioned music and, not incidentally, showed what this group can do at its inspired best.

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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