Andrew Pincus: Sunday afternoon at South Mountain, even the ugly was beautiful

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PITTSFIELD — It was just one of many breathtaking moments in the Calidore String Quartet's South Mountain debut concert Sunday afternoon, but it told the story: These players know how to get at the inner essence — the heart and soul — of music.

The finale of Mendelssohn's Quartet, Opus 13, recapitulates themes from the preceding movements, ending with a repeat of the slow introduction to the first movement. Imaginatively, the Calidore seemed to slow the passage down even further, turning it into a hymn-like moment of consolation and beauty.

Little heralded, the California ensemble played a conventional program that was anything but conventional in effect. The differences began with the group's tone — luminous and burnished, with the individual voices blending their identities. More importantly, everything seemed slowed down and unhurried, proving that speed is not the same as energy. The music — even Beethoven's onrushing "Razumovsky" Quartet No. 3 — seemed to emerge as if from a limpid pool with bottomless depths.

The Calidore takes its name from a combination of California and "dore," French for "gold," also suggesting California. The players — violinists Jeffrey Myers and Ryan Meehan, violist Jeremy Berry and cellist Estelle Choi — are on the young side. In fact, the group seems to have emerged only in 2016, when it won a succession of awards, including the $100,000 inaugural M-Prize International Chamber Music Competition. The current season continues a three-year residency with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

Amid high heat and humidity in the hall, the black-clad players made Janacek's "Kreutzer" Quartet the program's centerpiece. If string playing can be made to sound too beautiful, this might have been an instance.                                                                                                                                       

Janacek's tightly woven, four-movement work derives its name from Beethoven's "Kreutzer" Sonata for violin and piano. The Beethoven, written for - but apparently never performed by — French violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer, in turn gave rise to Tolstoy's novella of the same name.                                        

In Tolstoy's grim, moralistic tale, a jealous husband surprises his pianist wife, fully dressed, alone in conversation with the violinist partner with whom she plays the Beethoven work. The husband murders the wife but, in Tolstoy's telling, becomes less an example of the evil of murder than of selfishness and carnal desire.                                                                                                                                  

Janacek has his own take on the tale, sympathetic to the wife, so there is some deliberately ugly music suggesting the husband's depravity. The worst comes in the third movement when the second violin and viola make horrendous rasping noises (produced by the wood of the bows scraped rapidly over the strings) while the first violin and cello carry melodically on: Rage contends with love.                         Here, as throughout the work, the Calidore's sympathy both cushioned and heightened the essential conflict. The denouement in the finale evoked tragedy.                                                                      

The Calidore concluded with the third "Razumovsky" in a reading that contrasted with the second "Razumovsky" played a week before by the Orion String Quartet. Both performances were broadly paced, but where the Orion's seemed sluggish, the Calidore's probing attention to detail and underlying idea gave the Third buoyancy and breadth without loss of energy, even in the sizzling finale. The pizzicato cello in the second movement hauntingly paced the rolling rhythm of the upper strings' song.

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