CAMBRIDGE - The rise of professional touring string quartets, with their predominantly Romantic-virtuosic performance practice, has perhaps limited our experience of that repertoire. So it was a tonic to hear the Sarasa Chamber Music Ensemble tackle a trio of quartets on Saturday night with a decidedly pre-Romantic sensibility.
Both the Sarasa stalwarts - artistic director and cellist Timothy Merton and violist Jennifer Stirling - and their guests - violinists Lisa Weiss and Kati Kyme - have extensive Baroque and period-instrument experience, and it showed in Mozart's B-flat major quartet, K. 172. The group adopted an early-music sound throughout: a lean, mentholated timbre, a prominent lack of vibrato, and miter-edged, full-bowed articulations. The approach did reveal the work's shortcomings; composed when Mozart was only 17, the quartet's discourse is decidedly tilted toward the violins, and the somewhat monochromatic quality resulted in a limited sonic range.
Mozart's later mastery of the genre was in large part due to his study of the quartets of Franz Josef Haydn, including the next selection, Haydn's D-major quartet, Op. 33, No. 6. With far more independence and interplay among all four instruments, the svelte clarity became a virtue, highlighting in particular an effect Mozart would borrow again and again: a long, sustained note in the background that suddenly breaks like a wave, taking up the thread of conversation. The Scherzo and Finale movements were a little too easygoing even for Haydn, but on the whole the reading honored his munificent cleverness.
The second half jumped forward: Antonin Dvorak's 1893 Quartet in F major, Op. 96, nicknamed, in a nod to its provenance, the "American." Given the extra century's distance from the Baroque era, a shade more vibrato throb was in befitting evidence, but the tone was still far lower in fat than most groups; the result was some smudges of intonation, but also a vigorous heightening of the music's folk-derived elements. Those rustic echoes prove far more redolent of Dvorak's native Bohemia than his temporary adopted home; the quartet was written during a sojourn among an Iowa enclave of Bohemian immigrants. Depending on one's patriotic ideals, I guess, that makes the work's nickname either unusually inappropriate or unusually apt.