On paper it seemed that the Smithson Quartet's choice of program last night at the National Museum of American History was unvaried and unimaginative: two fairly early Haydn quartets and an early Beethoven. But the program turned out to be a sizzler. The first Haydn, Op. 17, No. 3, was still dominated by the first violin, a sure sign of the form in its infancy. Jaap Schroeder's playing of the finale was country fiddling, 1770-style.

Only one year later, at the age of 40, Haydn had found his true quartet voice. Op. 20, No. 4 is filled with eloquent conversation for all four instruments. The boldness and variety of this work -- its dramatic unisons, frenetic flights into the stratosphere, its adagio in march rhythm, its strange finale -- all this was captured powerfully by the Smithsons. Kenneth Slowik's cello, especially, sang out in burnished glory.

After the storm and stress of the Haydn, the transition to Beethoven, the young revolutionary, was not only natural but inevitable. His quartet Op. 18, No. 6, starts with comic opera brio and ends with a pre-Freudian description of the manic-depressive syndrome (the fourth movement is actually labeled "The Melancholic"). The Smithsons found every nuance in this prophetic music.