The National Academy of Sciences opened its 2002-03 season Sunday afternoon with a string quartet program featuring three sharply contrasted masterpieces: Haydn's light, witty Quartet in F, Op. 50, No. 5; Shostakovich's brooding, energetic Quartet No. 8, Op. 110; and Ravel's evocative, color-drenched Quartet in F. The American String Quartet responded to the music's varied demands with precise intonation and ensemble playing, deft phrasing, emotional power and finely calibrated dynamic nuances.

The Haydn quartet announces its intention to crack jokes right from the beginning, when the two violins launch into a sweet, simple tune only to be stopped by the viola and cello shouting the musical equivalent of "No!" This performance was unusual, violist Daniel Avshalomov explained in a spoken commentary, because it followed Haydn's recently discovered manuscript, which differs from printed editions in its minuet.

The Shostakovich quartet, probably better known in the string orchestra arrangement by the composer's friend Rudolf Barshai, dates from 1960 and is dedicated generically to the memory of "victims of fascism and war," but the music makes it clear that Shostakovich was prominent among those victims. He quotes from a number of his earlier works, including the opera "Lady Macbeth of Mtzensk," which got him into trouble with Stalin, and his Fifth Symphony, which got him (temporarily) out of it, and he uses his initials, in a musical code, as a major motif.

The performance was brilliant, powerful and superbly coordinated. So was the Ravel, which concluded the program. The American String Quartet must have played this work hundreds of times since it was founded in 1974, but it made the music sound as fresh as if it had been composed yesterday.

-- Joseph McLellan