For its season finale, Soundings: New Music at the Nasher presented violinist Anthony Marwood and pianist Aleksandar Madzar in a program advertised as “a dialogue of caprice and masterpiece.” The evening featured works ranging from two or three minutes to half an hour in length, dating from the turn of the nineteenth century to the 1980s, all thoughtfully presented and – last but not least – played quite well.

In his contribution to the program notes, artistic director Seth Knopp makes a case for the artistic value of showpieces, which in his estimation are “most intimately tied to the personality of a composer, and also most susceptible to performances that strip them of their art.” While they are usually disparaged as being of inherently lower quality than works of a more “serious” genre like sonatas, Mr. Knopp instead views these erstwhile vehicles for technical display – études and the like – as reduced to their compositional essence. The technical dimension of these pieces, in other words, forms a common denominator; the rapid string crossings, double-notes, and other mechanical trifles eventually recede from view, leaving in their place the distilled imprint of a composer’s individual style. Instead of technical virtuosity, Mr. Knopp calls on performers to achieve a “virtuosity of gesture” in speaking any given compositional language with fluency.

The performers followed suit with these provocative ideas, presenting the pieces so as to encourage comparative listening across style periods and genres. After Mr. Marwood and Mr. Madzar took the stage, the spotlights dimmed and loudspeakers played a recording of Paganini’s Caprice in E major, the first of 24, which revolutionized violin-playing when published in 1802. Michael Rabin, heard on the recording, was an acclaimed American violinist whose tragic death in 1972 at the age of 35 cut short a phenomenal career. His artistry, virtuosity, and, indeed, keen sense of compositional style brought these qualities into focus right from the outset. Without applause, a light came up on Mr. Marwood, who launched into Salvatore Sciarrino’s Caprice no. 1, written in 1976. Upon finishing, the light shone (literally) on Mr. Madzar, who performed – again, without waiting for applause – three of Debussy’s Twelve Études. Such fluidity in an otherwise strangely structured program created an atmosphere fertile for engagement with the music in ways not achieved by merely “clever” programming of unusual repertoire.

Among the assumptions challenged in this program was the notion that contemporary music ruins any subtler staple of the repertoire if heard in juxtaposition. After the opening sequence described above, Mr. Marwood and Mr. Madzar performed works by Sciarrino and Luciano Berio before what was undoubtedly the highlight of the evening, Schubert’s Fantasy in C major for violin and piano. The delicate textures of the twentieth-century pieces fit brilliantly with the Schubert, better matching that same quality in the latter’s music than might a work by Beethoven, for instance. The fact that we didn’t hear Mr. Marwood produce any significant number of full-voiced notes from his violin (i.e., not harmonics) before the glorious opening of the Schubert heightened its effect even more so.

“Virtuosity of gesture” made its biggest impression in the Fantasy. In their varied moods, rhythmic vitality, and malleable, vocal-sounding lines, these artists truly created 30 minutes of aural magic. Mr. Marwood took advantage of the intimate venue to widen his palette of timbres, especially early in the work. He produced captivating effects with little to no vibrato, allowing his sound to open up as the musical material itself unwound like a ball of yarn descending stairs (in this case, a rather long flight of them). Mr. Madzar’s playing was warm-blooded, his supple sound colored in equal measure by judicious pedal shadings and a masterful jeu perlé touch (a term pianists use to describe a slightly detached quality in delicate scales and passagework, meant to sound like a string of pearls). Phrases were buoyant, and breathed at just the right moments; Mr. Madzar and Mr. Marwood subtly stretched time at critical points to inflect the music with a flexibility that invigorated and propelled it forward.

Elsewhere in the program, their playing was excellent, if occasionally too influenced by the “special effects” of the contemporary works. The music of Debussy and Bartók, and Alfred Schnittke, too, has a more organic pulse and clearer phrase structure than much contemporary fare (which is not a criticism of modern music – not all works aim to succeed by the same parameters as those of earlier eras). I missed the beating heart of those works a bit, particularly the folk-inspired moments in Bartók’s Violin Sonata no. 1, which owes its “virtuosity of gesture” to the composer’s fieldwork in ethnomusicology. Nevertheless, these two performers gave captivating readings of everything they played, enabling the music to become its own staunchest advocate.