Intended or not, the Portland String Quartet presented a pointed history of European harmony over the span of just over a century at its first concert of the season, on Sunday afternoon at Woodfords Congregational Church.

The concert, which opened the ensemble’s 49th season, began with Haydn’s String Quartet in G major (Op. 54), a work composed in 1788 and steeped in the courtliness and harmonic elegance of its time. The works that followed – Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor (Op. 10, 1893) and Franck’s Quartet in D major (1890) – were created in a musical universe far from Haydn’s, where harmonic complexities and ambiguities yielded levels of emotional expression far more nuanced, to modern ears, than what was possible in Haydn’s time.

That is not to imply that emotional breadth and a broad coloristic palette were unavailable to Haydn, or that he was disinclined to experiment or push the language forward. You need only hear works like “The Creation,” or his middle and late symphonies, to understand the degree to which he pushed the edges of musical language in the hope of painting vivid scenes and creating an interpretation of reality that could be stormy, playful or even unabashedly pictorial.

But the G major Quartet is essentially a bright, cheerful entertainment, and the ensemble – violinists Dean Stein and Ronald Lantz, violist Julia Adams and cellist Patrick Owen – played it in that spirit.

One could quibble about whether the tempo of the Allegretto second movement was a bit slower than an Allegretto ought to be, or wince at an occasional sour note in the same movement. At its best, though – in the Menetto and the Presto finale – the playing was appealingly flexible in matters of tempo and dynamics, and what had seemed a thin, almost nasal sound in the opening movement, blossomed into a warm, rich tone, more typical of this ensemble.

Still, it was in the focused intensity of the Debussy that the quartet’s real strengths emerged. The juxtaposition of this gauzy, Impressionistic score with the Haydn was startling, familiar as both works are. We don’t hear Debussy’s harmonies as dissonant now – certainly, not in light of the developments that followed – but if Haydn’s audiences had heard it, they would have been at sea.

Or so we think, given the relative formality of Haydn’s language. Perhaps they would have heard as we do – as a vast, liberating expansion of instrumental technique, a liberation from tight harmonic rules and an embrace of influences as broad as ancient Greek modes and Asian gamelan. Dark-hued, often tactile (its second movement embraces strummed punctuating chords and pizzicato accompaniments), with themes that reappear from movement to movement, the piece makes its way to a tumultuous finale, pulling the listener deeper and deeper into Debussy’s imaginative world with the unsuspected power of an undertow.

The Franck, composed only three years before the Debussy, is more conventional, in the sense that Franck had not hit upon the combinations of dissonances that give Debussy the sound we think of as Impressionistic. We hear the music, instead, as French late Romanticism, influenced by the harmonic developments of Liszt and Wagner. Where Debussy builds his work of themes – both long-lined and fragmentary – that seem like strands make sense only within Debussy’s complex fabric, Franck offers full-bodied, singable tunes that could stand on their own, or in very different kinds of settings.

As in the Debussy, the quartet’s playing was at its richest, with striking solo contributions from all four, and unassailable ensemble precision. But the real attraction here was not the beauty of the group’s playing, impressive as that was. It was the way it bounced off the Haydn and Debussy, and showed Franck to have found an individualistic voice that helped lay the groundwork for Impressionism, yet stopped just short of the revolutionary harmonic tweaks that give Debussy’s new style its distinctive character.

That was the strength of the concert as a whole, as well. More than just a collection of lovely pieces, it challenged listeners to ponder the evolution of musical style over a relatively brief span. And that’s a hefty achievement for a Sunday afternoon.

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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