These days the big, expressive sound of American string quartets has for some reason become a bit unfashionable compared with a more trim and cool European sound. Yet the Wednesday evening Kennedy Center concert of the Orion String Quartet more than indicated that American ensembles still bring an unrivaled flavor, splendor and power to music.

Each member of the Orion -- violinists Todd and Daniel Phillips, violist Steven Tenenbom and cellist Timothy Eddy -- played with a precise and deft tone. Those qualities melded seamlessly with the refined musicianship of pianist Peter Serkin, who joined his longtime colleagues for a bracing Washington premiere of Peter Lieberson's 2001 Piano Quintet. The combined group infused a clarity and energy into this compact work that revealed its forward- and backward-looking nature. Traditional forms gave shape to astringent harmonies that glowingly touched on realms of mystery, aggression and solemnity.

After Daniel Phillips played first violin in the Lieberson, his brother Todd led a delightful reading of Mozart's Piano Quartet in E-flat, K. 493.

There was much to admire in the Orion's Mozart, from the intelligent phrasing of the first movement to the marvelous thematic craftsmanship of the finale. Beethoven's String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132, emerged sublimely. This complex, otherworldly music continually dissolved, re-formed and worked its deep ability to communicate. Here the Orion Quartet masterfully stood back and seemed to open up a direct channel to the composer.

-- Daniel Ginsberg