But where was the shock Sunday at South Mountain?

PITTSFIELD — Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven were revolutionaries who changed the face of music, even though we think only of Beethoven that way. In successive stages, they broke away from the then-standard molds to create what we know and love as the classical style.

The Orion String Quartet's program Sunday afternoon at South Mountain offered an opportunity to venture into the revolutionary development in a single work by each composer. Disappointingly, the playing was so bland, so lacking in tension, that none of the three works registered anything much beyond making up a standard quartet program.

In a time when the dominant quartet performance style, from veteran groups like the Emerson on down to a host of upstarts, is high-tension and high-energy, the Orion's laid-back approach ought to have offered different perspectives. Yet the timing always seemed a little behind the natural pace of the music; the phrases were merely stated rather than characterized by the kind of nuance that brings the shock of recognition and puts us in touch with these works all over again.

Take the opening selection, Mozart's Flute Quartet in C, the last of his four such quartets. It is a work of easy charm, and it was played that way, with flutist Tara Helen O'Connor as guest artist. But in the middle of the easygoing first movement, a sudden turn to a dark mood and quirky figures shows Mozart slyly subverting his own charm, only to return to it the more cheerily. The effect was largely glossed over in performance.

Likewise, the lengthy second movement consists of a theme and wide-ranging variations that go to unexpected places and make odd contrasts. The performance settled for pleasantries.                                                       

In Haydn's Opus 33, No. 1, the playing was earnest at best. Yet this work was, or should have been, a shocker; no wonder it is so seldom programmed. It's in the unusual key of B minor, skips around unpredictably, replaces the traditional minuet with a scherzo and engages in some storm and stress. Not your usual "Papa" Haydn.                                                                                                                                                 

Beethoven's "Razumovsky" Quartet No. 2 (Opus 59, No. 2) is such a concert staple that it's easy to forget how revolutionary all three of the "Razumovskys" are. It's in the traditional four movements, but each is expanded in breadth, harmony and range of expression beyond anything that came before. The first movement, for example, makes much of two slashing opening chords and a tightly coiled theme that follows. To keep the movement expansive yet taut, these need hair-trigger sharpness only suggested by the performance in general.                                                                                                                                                           

Just beginning its 30th season, the Orion consists of brothers Daniel and Todd Phillips, who switch off in violin positions; violist Steven Tenenbom, and cellist Timothy Eddy. It was impossible to tell whether this concert was a back-to-school moment after a summer layoff or the group's standard. Let's hope for the former.


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