ROCKPORT - A certain kind of music fan insists that things aren't as good as they were in some golden age, some decades ago. Past performers had more personality, gave the music more character, and were more interesting, so this thinking goes. It's an attitude that dovetails nicely - or perniciously - with classical music's general fixation on of its own past.
It's nonsense, of course. I'm increasingly convinced we are living through our own golden age of performance, particularly when it comes to string quartets. There is an astonishing number of young quartets with high technique levels and fresh approaches to both familiar works and fresh concert programming.
A case in point is the superb Calder Quartet, who played the first of two concerts at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival on Thursday. They began with an unusual, even provocative reading of Mozart's "Dissonance" Quartet. Performances of this piece usually focus on the opening harmonic clashes that give the piece its nickname, and treat the rest of the piece as standard (if wonderful) Mozart. Yet the Calder downplayed the opening and put the focus where you didn't expect it: on the slow movement, which had an insinuating force to it, and the finale, which went from being an innocuous closer to a pitched battle between darkness and light. It was exactly the kind of rethink you want from a talented group.
Thomas Adès's "Arcadiana" is a Calder specialty. The group calls Adès a mentor and put the piece on its first CD. The seven movements of "Arcadiana" paint complex portraits of paradise, with oblique references to Schubert, Mozart, and the painter Nicolas Poussin, among others. Though written in 1994, the piece still shocks with its uncompromisingly original language - harmonics, slides, and fragmented melody combine in surprising ways. Some of its portraits seem dystopian rather than utopian, such as the slashing "Et.(tango mortale)," but they're balanced by the sublimely beautiful sixth movement, "O Albion."
Andrew Norman, currently composer in residence with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, wrote ". toward sunrise and the prime of light." for the Calder in 2010. Unlike the Adès, it boasts a nearly static harmony and a straightforward arch shape. The music rises over a pedal in the cello until it blooms into an ecstatic wash of sound before subsiding. Though brief, it made a perfect prelude to Mendelssohn's Quartet in F minor, op. 80, which seethed with pent-up energy for the entire duration of the piece. The Calder's passionate engagement with the music was notable; so was their pinpoint control and near-flawless execution.
No encore was needed, but the Calder obliged the audience with a slyly funky performance of the pizzicato movement from the Ravel string quartet.