PITTSFIELD -- At 89, Menahem Pressler just keeps going.
The indefatigable pianist returned to South Mountain on Sunday with three "friends" -- violinist Benny Kim, violist Paul Coletti and cellist Eric Kim. The first work on the program was Mozart's Piano Quartet in E-flat, K. 493, which Pressler had played with the Boston Symphony Chamber Players at Tanglewood only a month ago.
The difference was instructive. In Ozawa Hall with high-powered orchestral players, the piano part had sounded pale and indistinct. With a hand-picked ensemble in the close-up acoustics of South Mountain, the piano and its struggles were dominant.
There's something admirable about Pressler's determination to push on after folding the Beaux Arts Trio in 2008, and
the South Mountain audience, made up largely of older people, clearly responds to his spirit as well as his playing. South Mountain is a virtual homecoming for him; he has performed there nearly every year for something like a half-century.
And he remains active on other fronts. He continues as a distinguished teacher at Indiana University, and his printed biography lists appearances with the Orchestre de Paris and Berlin Philharmonic on his 2013-14 performance schedule.
In his playing Sunday, you could hear echoes of the outstanding chamber player Pressler long had been. He knows the piano trio and quartet repertoire as well as anyone, and his understanding of how a phrase works underlay his thinking in the Mozart quartet and Schumann's Piano Quartet.
But, alas, the pianist seemed a drag on his excellent partners, who often seemed on the point of forging ahead with livelier playing. Even when all four were together, which wasn't always the case, his playing was labored and uneven, sounding like a voice apart rather than part of an ensemble.
When the strings took over for Ernst von Dohnanyi's Serenade, the difference in playing was immediately apparent. The spirited piece, a cross between Brahms and early Bartok, sprang to life with cohesion, a rich tone and a vigorous thrust.
There comes a time when the bones don't work as fluently as the mind.
In a talk from the stage, Pressler dedicated the encore, the andante from Brahms' Piano Quartet, Opus 60, to South Mountain's longtime director, Lou Steigler, for his services to music and musicians.