Devoting a concert program to “the three B’s” – Bach, Beethoven and Brahms – is a quaint idea. You don’t hear the phrase much now. It seems like a glimpse back to the 1940s, when those composers were thought of as a classical music Mount Rushmore. Haydn and Mozart were out of luck, because their ancestors hadn’t taken a name starting with B; Byrd was too early and Bartók was too modern to be included, and poor Berlioz – the original third B, when the phrase was coined in the mid-19th century – was puzzlingly ousted to make room for Brahms.

If any ensemble can carry off a “three Bs” program without raising too many eyebrows, the DaPonte String Quartet can, and it did on Thursday evening at the Maine Jewish Museum. It even pushed the quaintness meter harder by giving its program a cute, alliterative title, “Bees in Your Bonnet.” (Listeners who found this an oddly staid program for this usually adventurous ensemble, fear not. The group’s May concert includes a work by the British composer Thomas Adès.)

An immediate problem for a string quartet intent on playing a “three Bs” program, of course, is that Bach did not compose for this combination of instruments. That was easily solved by turning to a work for which Bach did not indicate specific instruments – “The Art of Fugue,” a titanic compilation meant to demonstrate all intricacies of fugal and canonic composition, a subject on which Bach’s mastery has never been equaled. It is often heard as a keyboard work, or a piece for mixed strings, winds and harpsichord. But quartets often play it, too.

The DaPonte players – violinists Lydia Forbes and Ferdinand Liva, violist Kirsten Monke and cellist Myles Jordan – offered the first and last fugues in the set, the last left unfinished at Bach’s death, with a single line of the fugue trailing off and then stopping in midthought. The group made an effort to evoke Bach’s sound world by playing with virtually no vibrato, and the slightly tart timbres that period stringed instruments produce.

It worked for me, but it seems fair to register the demurrals of friends who are not fans of the early music sound, and for whom the group’s astringency registered as shrillness and uncentered intonation. The players themselves said nothing about their intentions, but the avoidance of vibrato in these fugues seemed the key to what they had in mind, particularly since they applied it so lavishly to the Beethoven and Brahms, where it is more historically suitable.

But debates about the quartet’s sound aside, what made the performance work was the linear clarity the players brought to the fugues. The interlocking relationship between the four lines was always fully in focus, and was the source of an unusual kind of musical excitement, based more on the ingenuity of the composition than on the virtuosic flash of the playing.

Unlike Bach, Beethoven and Brahms wrote quartets – but DaPonte sidestepped them, instead adding a second violist, Katherine Murdock, loaned from the Los Angeles Piano Quartet, to play Beethoven’s String Quintet in C (Op. 29) and Brahms’ String Quintet in G (Op. 111).

The Beethoven, composed in 1801, bears traces of both the rough-hewn humor of his early works and the bold expansiveness toward which he was heading. It had a warm, flexible performance here, with pointed phrasing as well as fluid tempos and dynamics that gave the piece a breathing, organic quality. And it benefited from especially vital playing by Forbes in its brisk finale.

The Brahms is clearly enjoying a burst of popularity in Portland. The DaPonte-Murdock performance was the third I’ve heard since August, after high-gloss, deeply involving accounts by the Portland Chamber Music Festival and the Portland String Quartet.

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