Wednesday September 12, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- Although the American String Quartet’s treatment of the quartets of Beethoven, Bartok and others in their repertory has been praiseworthy over the ensemble’s three dozen years in action, they arrived on stage Sunday at South Mountain Concerts with nary a page reflecting this genre.

And that’s because the group’s members -- Peter Winograd and Lurie Carney, violins; Daniel Avshalomov, viola, and Wolfram Koessel -- also are esteemed, and often sought, as collaborators of other, often celebrated, chamber music makers.

Such was the case Sunday when they were joined by the veteran pianist Menahem Pressler, founding member of the late great Beaux Arts Trio, and Richard Stoltzman, one of our finest clarinetists. On the agenda were quintets by Schumann and Mozart, the latter also represented by a trio.

Vulnerable souls often attract strong figures who lead them astray and in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s case that irresistible force was one Anton Stadler, reportedly a bad houseguest who cheated the Master of Salzburg and led him to strong drink and late hours.

But Stadler also was a superb clarinetist who inspired Mozart to compose for that instrument, and Stoltzman, in his first South Mountain appearance, proved a valuable interpreter of both works on display.

Skittles, a minor sport like bowling, was a favorite idle-time activity for Mozart and Stadler, and it provided the name, "Kegelstatt," if not the structure or programmatic nature of the Trio in A, K.


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498. Although Pressler requested raising the piano lid fully at the outset, his keyboard work generally was temperate enough not to obscure the more gentle voice of Avshalomov’s viola, and Stoltzman’s rich, always measured, tones provided a sumptuous complement to the performance. The conversation between clarinet and viola during the menuetto’s trio was especially engaging.

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With quartet members displaying their customary discipline and attention to nuance, with exquisite partnership from Stoltzman, Mozart’s Quintet in A, K. 581, emerged as the afternoon’s undisputed highlight. The American’s collective sound is one of sweetness, and Stoltzman blended so very well with that agreeable timbre.

In both the expressive and sprightly menuetto and the six finely distilled variations in the final movement, this convivial collaboration produced textures that were transparent, along with a fluidity that prevailed throughout the piece.

The performance of Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E flat (Op. 44) following intermission emerged less felicitous all around. Although a few lovely moments in the moody martial second movement, textures, even for this composer, often were overly thick, and the notable quality of ensemble enjoyed earlier was missing.

Pressler’s digital effort tended to be a bit heavy and rather murky in those vibrant scales Schumann posed in the breathtaking scherzo, and as well in the pair of fugues that rarely fail to summon thrills in this classic finale.

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Applause, of course, followed the performance, a few stood, most remained, perhaps admonished by a program insert that included a few tips on proper concert behavior including the appropriate manner in which to induce an encore from artists eager to do so. It was effective and the quintet from the Schumann returned -- for the slow movement from the Brahms F-minor, concluding an early autumn afternoon on a serene note, or series of them.