The Left Bank Quartet has distinguished itself by its programming of contemporary music, if not always by the overall quality of its playing. The group’s performance on Sunday afternoon, presented through the Steinway Series of free concerts in the auditorium of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, was a case in point. Two more-commonly heard quartets, by Leos Janacek and Antonin Dvorak, received professional but unremarkable renditions, while a relatively new work by American composer Paul Moravec stood out.

Actually, Moravec’s “Tempest Fantasy” is not exactly an unknown quantity, either. In the years since it won the composer a Pulitzer Prize in 2004, it has received a few performances in the area, proving itself a durable piece over multiple hearings. Guest pianist Audrey Andrist, building on her experience performing the work, anchored this performance with fleet fingerwork, while Paul Cigan stole the show with his grunting bass clarinet turn in the Caliban movement, a monster struggling its best to achieve elegance. Cellist Evelyn Elsing was perhaps too retiring in the role of Prospero in the second movement, too covered by the other instruments, and violinist David Salness had his best moments in the sweet, floating introduction to the fourth movement (“Sweet Airs”).

Janacek’s first string quartet, inspired by Tolstoy’s novella “The Kreutzer Sonata,” had a frantic, dramatic quality and some luscious ensemble sounds in slow passages, but strident sections tended to bring out too many infelicities of intonation among the four musicians. Likewise, Dvorak’s “American” String Quartet, Op. 96, received a pleasant and cooperative performance, drenched in nostalgia, with each instrument given space to add its important lines. The opening of the second movement was particularly warm and smoky, but the strain of more forceful passages brought out harsher sounds, especially high on first violinist Salness’s E string.

Downey is a freelance writer.

The Left Bank Quartet. (Courtesy of Left Bank Quartet)