LENOX -- What does Mozart have to do with Elliott Carter, Aaron Copland and Gyorgy Kurtag on a concert program?
Not much, really. But Mozart gave the Boston Symphony Chamber Players the occasion to bring in 89-year-old pianist Menahem Pressler as a guest artist at their annual Tanglewood program Tuesdaynight.
It's a wonder that Pressler, the driving force behind the Beaux Arts Trio until he folded it in 2008, is still out there doing chamber music. He even brought a two-minute solo piece written by Kurtag for him, "Hungarian Impromptu," segueing from it into Mozart's Quartet, K. 493, with violinist Malcolm Lowe, violist Steven Ansell and cellist Jules Eskin.
Alas, longevity is not the same as vigor, accuracy, character and all the other good stuff that go into ensemble playing. Pressler got off some felicitous turns of phrase as of old, but at other times the piano was pallid or indistinct behind the strings' spirited playing. The audience received the performance enthusiastically.
The performance also marked the return of Lowe, the BSO's concertmaster, to active duty after an absence of seven months due to rotator cuff surgery. In both musicianship and leadership with his BSO colleagues, he seemed as good as ever. Maybe better.
In the dedicatee's performance, the Hungarian Kurtag's brief piece sounded quiet and mystical, with a hint of Schubert in it. The segue into Mozart didn't seem to help either piece.
The program was dedicated to the memory of Carter, who died last year at 103, composing almost to the end. His terse Wind Quintet (1948) and "Figment III" for double bass solo (2007) were paired with the original 13-instrument version of Copland's "Appalachian Spring" ballet score. Both composers were, and still are, towering figures in American music; both had long Tanglewood associations.
Carter's early quintet, as the adroit performance made clear, is Carter for people who don't like Carter. As in his more complex later works, instruments go their separate ways in the guise of separate characters, only occasionally getting together. The effect here was of guests at a party jabbering merrily away with only half an ear attuned to one another.
"Figment III," one of a series of these etude-like pieces by Carter, is more challenging, especially for the performer -- in this case, BSO principal bassist Edwin Barker. Seemingly with ease, he carried off the feat of making a single bass sound like three in the quick alterations between registers and effects.
As you would expect from musicians of this caliber, "Appalachian Spring" was well played and duly nostalgic. But a rhythmic spark was missing, even though BSO assistant conductor Marcelo Lehninger conducted. Even more than usually, the performance seemed to be waiting for the "Simple Gifts" variations to happen.