Caught completely unawares – hearing a group I wasn’t familiar with, and on a Monday evening at that – I ended up seeing the Artemis Quartet give the best performance of any kind that I’ve experienced in quite a while. The Berlin-based group, in the middle of a ten-day US tour that concludes on Sunday at Carnegie Hall, played Mendelssohn, Ginastera, and Schubert on a presentation of the Dallas Chamber Music series.

To say that an ensemble is greater than the sum of its parts, while true of the Artemis Quartet, belittles the individual credentials of instrumentalists this fine. (I was surprised to learn, given the chemistry among the four, that three of the ensemble’s members have joined in the last six years, with current first violinist Vineta Sareika coming on board only in 2012.) With the tendency of many chamber series to use their budgets to cobble together several big-name performers who don’t typically play with one another, it was a treat to hear an established group, especially one so phenomenally polished.

Flawless intonation, wonderful tone production, and perfectly matched timbres were a constant throughout the evening. Beyond that, the Artemis Quartet’s playing was defined by an attention to expressive detail that, while extraordinary, never became an end in itself. In the Mendelssohn Quartet in D major, Op. 44 no. 1, for example, the startling precision in all unison figures, no matter how difficult, was always subsumed into an overriding musical character. Similarly, the great achievement in their rendering of the myriad extended techniques (unconventional methods of producing sounds from the instrument, such as harmonics or col legno, striking the strings with the wood of the bow) in Ginastera’s Quartet no. 2, Op. 26, was just how unassuming and organic it all seemed.

The Mendelssohn quartet provided the easiest listening of the evening, and an ideal showcase for the balance, dynamic range, and wit of the Artemis Quartet’s playing. This is an ensemble without a weak link, and all four players shone in extroverted solo moments. Their uncanny sense of timing, which transcended mere careful rehearsing, had the effect in the outer movements of a brilliantly paced comedic act, with smile-inducing hesitations and diffusions of tension around every corner.

Alberto Ginastera’s Second Quartet is a thorny work, far more experimental than many of his quintessentially Latin American pieces which end up on concert programs today. Without downplaying any of its bold Modernism (Ginastera employed twelve-tone techniques in writing it), the Artemis Quartet’s reading never treated the music hysterically. Unfazed by grinding dissonances and nebulous harmonic realms, they approached even the most percussive bits of this work with an unerring devotion to pitch content. They apparently have not recorded any of the Bartók quartets, but judging by their Ginastera I’d imagine such a project would make a big splash.

Ginastera’s treatment of twelve-tone writing is similar to Berg’s in his Violin Concerto, for example, a work which tends toward tonality; theirs is a serialism made accessible. Strangely, yet appropriately, the most unsettling moments of this concert came in Schubert’s Quartet in G major, D.887, which predates the Ginastera by just over 130 years. For all the aggression and complexity of that later work, Schubert makes us feel even more lost through such seemingly simple devices as the refusal to completely settle in the major or minor mode. One particularly stark moment in the second movement, when two halves of a phrase overlap in a kind of round, one half with a minor turn and the other opening up into major, was played with a nonchalance perfectly calculated to convey the gravity of this music in all its grotesqueness.

In tone quality as well as atmosphere, the Artemis Quartet saved the biggest shocks for this work rather than the Ginastera. Schubert interrupts the already spooky second movement with a series of two-note interjections, for which was reserved a completely unique timbre out of the countless colors heard throughout the program. The quartet saved their only harsh sounds of the evening for this, the earliest work they played, and the effect was damning. For all the wonders of string playing they had exhausted in the first two pieces, this Schubert quartet offered a depth to the Artemis Quartet’s playing that rounded out a truly complete performance.