British chamber ensemble doubles the ante for strings at South Mountain

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PITTSFIELD — In its previous concert, South Mountain showed Mozart enriching the sound of a string quartet by adding a second viola to create a quintet. This past Sunday, the visiting Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble further sweetened the pot by adding two extra violas plus two extra cellos to a quartet, making an octet.

Mention string sextet and octet to chamber music fanciers, and two composers' works snap into focus: Brahms' two sextets and the Mendelssohn Octet. Behold! Brahms' Sextet No. 2 and the one and only Mendelssohn Octet, plus a brand-new string octet channeling Mendelssohn's, made up the London ensemble's program.

The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields is the London chamber orchestra founded in 1958 by the late Neville Marriner. Like the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, it draws on members of the parent orchestra to play chamber music in various configurations beyond the standard string quartet.

The oft-recorded Academy orchestra is noted for its brilliance of performance, and that quality certainly carried over into the South Mountain program, part of an American tour. Aside from some intonation flaws — possibly humidity-induced — late in the program, the playing was distinguished by not just precision but also vibrancy, imagination and penetration into meanings and mysteries in all three works.

The new piece was Sally Beamish's "Partita." Born in 1956, Beamish is the ensemble's composer-in-residence. "Partita" is so new that it was premiered only two days before South Mountain, in Columbus, Ga.

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As "partita" and the titles of her octet's three movements — Prelude, Fugue and Chaconne — suggest, the engaging work draws on the old baroque forms, especially associated with Bach. The other inspiration, Beamish writes, is the Mendelssohn Octet, which, she notes, was in turn influenced by Bach and Handel.

The references were hard to detect in the music itself. What did emerge was a sense of slowly evolving fragments coming together and breaking apart — sensuously, in this performance.

The first two movements came across as calm and quiet, sometimes suggesting Bartok's night music. The chaconne finale, consisting of eight variations, spun off in a more angular and assertive direction. Toward the end, Beamish writes, a viola solo is "an attempt to reveal the identity of the hidden theme." That's a game to play some other time. Meanwhile, the close intervals — spaces between simultaneous notes — demonstrated just how keen yet flexible the group's intonation and coordination can be. The match was superb.

The Brahms and Mendelssohn performances shared those same qualities but with a mellow romanticism. Both works enjoyed ease and elasticity of phrasing over a solid rhythmic foundation. Brahms' sextet, composed in his early, impassioned years, seemed to speak of the sweetness of life, even in his excitable outbursts. The playing in Mendelssohn sizzled with enough energy to light the Berkshires for the rest of the month. Brilliance was offset with just a hint of introspection.                                                                                                                        

This Sunday, to end the season, South Mountain reverts to the standard four strings with the redoubtable Emerson Quartet.

This Sunday, to end the season, South Mountain reverts to the standard four strings with the redoubtable Emerson Quartet.


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