If there is an ideal musical instrument it is the violin, because it most closely approximates the human voice. This point became abundantly clear at the inaugural concert for the first American Violin Congress, held last night at the University of Maryland's Tawes Theatre. The program was restricted to three Bs -- Beethoven, Brahms and Barto'k -- and only scratched the surface of the violin's dramatic capabilities. Yet all performers involved vigorously attacked works that, when played persuasively, never fail to excite audiences.

Sir Yehudi Menuhin, the congress' president, officially got things under way with Beethoven's "Kreutzer" Sonata. After an initial bout with intonation problems and some rough-edged bowstrokes, he settled comfortably into the piece, drawing graceful, flowing lines in the middle variations movement. Menuhin later joined Robert McDuffie for eight Barto'k duos (Nos. 37-44), potent miniatures that found both men dispensing with their bows altogether at one point for a pizzicato duet before engaging in a sort of Magyar hoedown.

Joshua Bell, currently enrolled at Indiana University, brought the skills of a seasoned veteran to the third Brahms Sonata for Violin and Piano. There is a certain youthful longing in these four movements, but Bell didn't overindulge in any emotional theatrics. His assured bowing arm produced a consistently lustrous tone that prevailed in every instance.

McDuffie and Ani Kavafian each zeroed in on the pulse of two separate Barto'k works. For the Rhapsody No. 2 for Violin and Piano McDuffie took the title at face value for a supercharged performance. Kavafian, in the second Sonata for Violin and Piano, emphasized tonal color, facilitated by her unerring sense of pitch.

Pianist Jonathan Feldman deserves mention for his contributions. He was everything an accompanist is supposed to be: supportive, attentive and unafraid to make his presence felt, as he did most successfully when teamed with Kavafian.