South Mountain: Concert was fun with good manners

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PITTSFIELD -- Schubert’s "Trout" Quintet is the kind of piece that can be played in a living room by friends -- amateurs maybe -- who have fun kicking it around and scuffing it up a bit. That’s the way it would have been played in Schubert’s time, and probably still is played in some corners of the land.

Of course, there’s another way to play it, and that’s by four gentlemen in ties and business suits and a pianist in a flowing gown. That’s the way it was played -- as a concert piece -- by cellist David Finckel, pianist Wu Han and three friends Sunday afternoon at South Mountain.

Finckel and Wu Han, though busy with many other chamber music activities, including co-directorships of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, are South Mountain favorites. For this program, they were joined by violinist Benjamin Beilman -- a young multiple award-winner -- and veteran violist Paul Neubauer and bassist Timothy Cobb.

The "Trout" made a nice complement to Schubert’s "Death and the Maiden" Quartet, performed at South Mountain two weeks before by the Juilliard String Quartet. In both, Schubert turns one of his songs into a set of variations as a slow movement. Where "Death and the Maiden" is pure tragedy, the "Trout" is rollicking fun.

Ever popular, the "Trout" was the finale of the ensemble’s program, which in turn was the finale of the Mountain season. The performance moved steadily along with a good-natured air, a smooth blend, a songful "Trout" movement and an infectious bounce in the finale.

It was loving. It was seamless. It was relaxed. Amid the bass’s growls and groans, it was occasionally bumptious. In high-gloss concert treatment, it was fun with good manners.

The rest of the program also carried a Viennese stamp and mellow air.

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Weight was provided by Brahms’ Cello Sonata No. 1, another of the romantic works he composed under the spell of Clara Schumann, by then Robert’s widow. (More overtly, there are references to Bach.)

Overall, the passions seemed subdued, as they more markedly are in Brahms’ later works. Here, the effect seemed at least partly due to an imbalance in performance. At the keyboard, Wu Han was dynamic and supportive by turns. Finckel seemed uncharacteristically distant and detached.

To a certain extent, this is the way Brahms wrote the piece. Yet understatement seemed to mark the cello part, as in an inert rhythm in the minuet-like middle movement.

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Beethoven’s early String Trio No. 1, which opened the program, is a work of no pretensions to depth, and the players resisted any temptation to make it more than it is. In the easy-going performance, the intricate interplay of the finale was like a game of tag between instruments.

A crisp October day with a chill in the air also spelled end of season.


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