CAMBRIDGE — The Boston-based Arneis Quartet (violinists Heather Braun and Rose Drucker, violist Daniel Doña, cellist Agnes Kim) takes its name from a variety of grape that is notoriously difficult to cultivate. Wine aficionado websites reveal many things that can go wrong with the fruit; harvest it too late, or the weather’s too warm, or disease spreads through the vineyard, and it’s all over.
The three American works that the string quartet performed Friday night at Massachusetts Institute of Technology were appropriately devilish for a group named for such a grape: the rhythmic labyrinth of Elena Ruehr’s String Quartet No. 3, the heady hymns of John Harbison’s String Quartet No. 3, the lightning-in-a-jar modernism of Ruth Crawford Seeger’s String Quartet. With high risks came high reward, and the Arneis Quartet offered an intense, indelible experience to the small crowd in Killian Hall.
No notes were distributed for the intermissionless program, but Harbison and Ruehr, both MIT faculty members, spoke from the floor-level stage. Ruehr proffered insights into the personal story behind her piece, and the quartet’s rendition had the intimate and almost forbidden feeling of stumbling upon a diary. Particularly so was the second movement, “The Abbey,” which was written with an ailing relative in mind; contemplative resonant passages were shattered by harsh slashing gestures, evoking reality breaking through reverie.
Dense chorale textures in Harbison’s rarely performed single-movement quartet were made pellucid. The quartet’s approach was consistently elegant, but never untouchable — more so the elegance of a curling vine, or a cluster of grapes hanging in the night sky.
Recent years have seen a well-deserved surge of interest in Crawford Seeger’s 1931 string quartet, which plays innovative games with serialism. In this performance, the players flung the melody around like a hot potato, and set Braun’s first violin in taut dialogue with the other three instruments. In the slow-moving, part-crossing third movement, a haze of sound flooded the hall. Distinguishing one instrument from another was nearly impossible; when I closed my eyes, the music seemed to be rising up and ringing from all around. I will remember that feeling for a long time.
At Killian Hall, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, FridayZoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.