As generous applause for Alfred Schnittke's String Quartet No. 4 ended, an audience member remarked, "On the eve of a war, that was perfect music." The comment said it all, for the piece struck with all its grating savagery in a stunning performance by the Alban Berg Quartet Thursday at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. The Berg Quartet is totally at home in the Schnittke, which the Russian-born composer dedicated to this ensemble, formed more than 30 years ago in Vienna, where Berg and Webern in alliance with Schoenberg broke ground with atonal and serial composition.

The players opened unexpectedly with the introduction to Haydn's "Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross," which, violist Thomas Kakuska explained, would "help prepare listeners for the Schnittke." The Haydn's turbulence lurched along its restless course, leading after a few silent seconds directly into the Schnittke. Until his death in 1998, Schnittke redirected his composition styles; his serial phase, from the 1980s, dominates this quartet. The Berg unloosed all of the music's morbid brutality -- surging through its entirety -- with stinging intensity. In a close encounter of varying instrumental groupings, bows charged into grating, vibrato-less dissonances tamed occasionally by splashes of tonality and a Bach-ish hymn interlude. Yet one still pondered over that "link" between the Schnittke and Haydn. Perhaps overwhelming gravity.

-- Cecelia Porter

Alban Berg Quartet, striking an appropriate chord.