ROCKPORT — The string quartet is not as old a technological advance as some — gunpowder, movable type, and double-entry bookkeeping all predate it — but it is old enough to be taken for granted. That is probably why the sound of the string quartet, paradoxically, does not sound as dated as the electronic sounds it is paired with in Leon Kirchner’s String Quartet No. 3, the centerpiece of the Parker String Quartet’s concert on Friday at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival.
In Kirchner’s defense, those electronic sounds are vintage 1966, epochs ago by computer science standards. And, really, no matter: The quartet is a great piece, a generous dose of the sort of muscular, pragmatically emotive modernism that Kirchner, who died in 2009, at 90, could do better than almost anyone.
There are places in the quartet where Kirchner plays with congruent special effects on tape and on string: a Sputnik-like beep morphing into glassy harmonics from violinist Daniel Chong and violist Jessica Bodner, avian electronic burbles sparking a fizz of passagework from Chong and fellow violinist Karen Kim, cellist Kee-Hyun Kim laying down a thumping, drum-like pizzicato met by similarly hollow resonance from the speakers. But mostly, the electronics exist to goad the quartet into streetwise expressionism, lean and tough, eerie then explosive, something between a noir detective and a space-age Dante. The Parker’s performance was intense, virtuosic, utterly assured.
Indeed, the group thrives on combinations of intricacy and power. Their touchstones are precision and an assiduously cultivated blend of sound — focused and wiry at its core and, whatever the style, so well-matched that it can be difficult to tell where one instrument leaves off and another begins. It can also produce a kind of hermetic quality, as in the opener, Mozart’s F major Quartet, K. 590: all taut, short-bowed control and tightly coiled phrases, pinning the music’s eccentric pauses and sudden accents with aggressive propriety.
If the Mozart felt like it was in macro-lens close-up, the Parker’s playing in Robert Schumann’s A major Quartet, Op. 41, No. 3, was more wide-angle, more full-blooded, with more depth of field in the byplay between instruments, and more range of color, jumping headlong into every one of Schumann’s quick-changing moods. Both refined and rustic, flipping the discourse from inward to outward on a dime, the Parker made the technology of the string quartet so user-friendly as to be invisible.