The Portland String Quartet took a detour from the standard quartet repertory for its Sunday afternoon concert at Woodfords Congregational Church. Only one of the three works the group performed – the Brahms Quintet No. 2 in G major (Op. 111) – is played frequently enough to be regarded as a staple (the Portland Chamber Music Festival performed it in August), although its requirement of a second violist limits the frequency of its appearances, somewhat. The others, William Grant Still’s aptly named “Lyric Quartette” (1960) and Giuseppe Verdi’s Quartet in E minor (1873) are heard in concert once in a blue moon.

In the case of the Still work, that’s a pity and also a bit of a mystery, because the three-movement piece is filled to the brim with attractive themes that range from the folkloric and rustic to the gracefully sophisticated, and plush harmonies of the kind that quartets revel in and listeners find hard to resist.

Perhaps its problem was that it wasn’t what listeners thought they wanted at the time. Composed in 1960, when new quartets were expected to be more experimental and harder-edged, Still’s “Lyric Quartette” sounds like a hybrid of late Dvorák and Samuel Barber, a blend that was considered woefully conservative in its day.

It could be, too, that listeners expected Still, as “the dean of African-American composers” to incorporate quotations from spirituals or other black musical forms, as he did in some of his best-known works. There is little of that here. You can find a hint of it at the start of the third movement, but that morphs quickly into something else entirely – a bright-hued passage in a Renaissance dance rhythm, of all things.

But the distance of 56 years gives us the luxury of hearing this piece for what it is, rather than what it isn’t. In a musical world where many new-music orthodoxies have been overturned, this is a well-wrought, pleasing score that is worth reviving, and the Portland players – violinists Dean Stein and Ronald Lantz; violist Julia Adams; and cellist Patrick Owen – made its case in a beautifully shaped, sumptuous reading.

They brought those qualities to the Verdi quartet as well, but that work is never likely to be much more than a mildly interesting footnote, Verdi’s only instrumental score (not counting the overtures to his operas, of course), composed as he whiled away the time during a three-week delay in the Naples production of “Aida.”

If some of the expectations early listeners brought to the Still seem unreasonable now, it is not unreasonable to expect Verdi, a composer beloved for his shapely vocal themes, to have lavished his melodic powers on his quartet. But he clearly regarded this work as a different kind of exercise, a study in gesture and texture, rather than melody building. It has some nice dramatic touches, and every now and then – during a rising trilled figure in the first violin part of the finale, for example – you feel as if a Verdi aria, or a reasonable facsimile, might burst forth. But in the end, there is little memorable here.

The second half of the program was devoted to the Brahms, for which the quartet was joined by violist Jesus Alfonzo, a Venezuelan who now teaches at Stetson University in Florida. Alfonzo was a founding member of El Sistema, his country’s renowned music education program; the Portland musicians first collaborated with him during a visit to Venezuela to work with the program’s students.

A late work, composed in 1890, the Brahms is an explosion of passion, with an occasional backward glance (the opening of the second movement revisits the opening of the Third Symphony’s Poco Allegretto movement, composed seven years earlier), as well as measure of the rhythmic vitality that recalls the “gypsy” style Brahms cultivated in more youthful works.

The quartet and Alfonzo gave the score a stunning performance, with tempo and color shifts executed with tightness and precision, sharply accented phrasing in the high-energy finale, and a deep, rich sound throughout. But the group’s technical polish was not the focus here; this was an emotionally gripping reading, one of the best I’ve heard the Portland String Quartet produce.

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

Twitter: kozinn

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