The DaPonte String Quartet was in exceptionally fine form on Thursday evening, when it played works by Haydn, Bartók and Shostakovich at the Maine Jewish Museum.

The only puzzling element of the concert was how its title, “Through the Looking Glass,” applied to the music at hand. It might have been that Haydn’s Quartet No. 1 in B-flat major (Hob III:1) and Bartók Quartet No. 4 were both written in a palindrome-like form, with a fast-moderate-slow-moderate-fast movement layout (and in the Bartók, with thematic connections between the first and last movements) – a structural trick that works with the title’s mirror imagery and, perhaps, evokes the fantasy world that the borrowed Lewis Carroll title implies.

But Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 8 in C minor (Op.110) was one of the composer’s nightmarish depictions of life in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin, a universe away from Carroll’s fantasy. Or was it? Perhaps the work reminded the DaPonte players of the fourth chapter of Carroll’s novel – the one with the brothers Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, the Red King with his philosophical dreams, symbolism-rich poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” the battle preparations and the menacing crow.

Unraveling an ensemble’s reasons for a program title probably shouldn’t be so much work, or so much of a distraction, but I have to admit, it’s fun to grapple with. The group’s cellist, Myles Jordan, wrote the program notes, but didn’t explain the title. But in his spoken introduction, he added another element: All these works, he said, are political.

The Shostakovich is obviously a political broadside, no argument there. The Bartók could be, but it’s a stretch. Jordan noted that in its third movement, Bartók has the quartet mimic the sound of a tárogató, a reed instrument of Turkish origin that was banned in Hungary because it was a symbol of an 18th-century attempt to break free from the Hapsburg dynasty.

But the Haydn? Composed in the 1750s (the exact year is unknown), it is Haydn at his most formal and courtly, a study in proportion and symmetry, with not one, but two Minuet and Trio movements. The DaPonte players – violinists Ferdinand Liva and Lydia Forbes, violist Kirsten Monke, and cellist Jordan – performed it in that spirit, with faultlessly balanced, trim textures, ample warmth in the sweetly melodic Adagio, robust Prestos and the spirit of genteel elegance in the Minuets.

The Bartók, composed in 1928 and still sounding fresh, drew a more suitably acerbic approach from the quartet. The vigorous performance kept the work’s sharp-edged dissonances in perspective without undercutting its effect – still jarring after all this time, and meant to be – while also capturing the beauty in the tactile pizzicato fourth movement, which the group’s subtly nuanced dynamics illuminated perfectly. The Shostakovich, composed in 1960 – seven years after Stalin’s death – is an extraordinary work, packed with musical symbolism that begins with the opening D, E-flat, C, B motif. Those notes, using German note-naming conventions (in which E flat is “es” and B natural is “H”), were Shostakovich’s musical signature, and heard at the start of this work, they convey the sense that the work is Shostakovich’s personal testimony about the horrors he had lived through.

Other symbols include brusque chords that suggest the KGB knocking at the door, the hum of electric fences at the gulag and a fragment of Eastern Orthodox chant. Allusions to earlier works, which also carried underlying protest messages or personal cries of psychic pain, turn up as well, including a Yiddish folk theme from his Piano Trio No. 2 (Op. 67), the three-note figure, meant to suggest forced laughter, from his Cello Concerto No. 1 (Op. 107).

Here, the DaPonte players were at their most electrifying, not only in the hard-driven, bitter-quick movements, but in the work’s three haunting Largo movements as well – particularly the intensely melancholy, elegiac finale. Ensembles often try to avoid ending a concert on such a dour note – some might have closed with the cheerful Haydn or with the high-energy Bartók, as the printed program suggests the group originally planned to do. But the decision to move the Shostakovich to the end, and leave the audience with something to ponder, was undoubtedly the right choice.

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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