PITTSFIELD - At what point does nostalgia shade off into something darker?
The Orion String Quartet seemed to cross the line in Schubert's Quartet in A minor, which opened the foursome's concert Sunday afternoon at South Mountain. As went Schubert, so went Schumann and Dvorak later in the program.
The Orion, now beginning its 26th season, must put out the biggest sound of any quartet that has played South Mountain in recent years. The playing was not only powerful, but at times overpowering. In a program of romantics, the spirit felt almost anti-romantic.
That Schubert quartet, for example: It's a gently melancholic work, quoting a wistful movement from Schubert's "Rosamunde" incidental music. Through a full-bodied sound, broad pacing and strong contrasts in tempos and dynamics, the Orion (violinists Daniel and Todd Phillips, violist Steven Tenenbom and cellist Timothy Eddy) brought a charged intensity to the music.
Schubert's switches to an unsettled state became tumultuous, and even the lighter final movements took on a dark edge. The work verged on the starkness and pathos of Schubert's later "Death and the Maiden" Quartet. Because the playing, apart from occasional strident passages, was so finely honed and thoughtfully laid out along the lines of the music, you couldn't say the performance missed the point. It was, in fact, healthful to hear the familiar work in the unfamiliar guise. Yet in the end, the performance wound up more perplexing than revealing.
Schumann's Quartet No. 2 and Dvorak's Piano Quintet, with Peter Serkin as the pianist, followed. The performances had much the same character as the Schubert did, though the music bore the approach better.
The Schumann quartet is the least known of his three. Like many of his works, it is a love song to his wife, Clara. The lyrical impulse especially comes to the fore in the slow movement, a set of variations on a theme that could easily have served for one of Schumann's songs.
The performance was nothing if not passionate, yet the lyrical side seemed to yield to the dramatic.
That slow movement, for example, was weightier than the graceful writing suggested.
The Dvorak quintet, so familiar at South Mountain that it might well be a signature piece, presented Serkin in an unusual role in the Berkshires, where he is better known as an orchestral soloist and recitalist than chamber player. He and the Orion are longtime teammates, though.
Dvorak's quintet, like the Schumann and Brahms piano quintets, can easily turn into a mini-concerto, but Serkin was a consummate partner, supporting the strings in a performance that had a core of mellowness behind bold surges of sound and mood. The audience responded with a foot-stomping ovation.