Calidore String Quartet tackle three pieces, three mysteries

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PITTSFIELD — Each composition came with a mystery.

The Calidore String Quartet returned to South Mountain Concerts on Sunday with a program of Schubert, Ravel and Beethoven. After the heat and musical adventures of summer in the Berkshires, the chamber series basked in the glories of splendid September weather and tried-and-true music from the past, played with a distinctive flair.

Hailing from Los Angeles, the Calidore is celebrating its 10th season. From so youthful-looking an ensemble, you might expect performances bursting with energy. The playing went the other way.

Instead, the group, which lists an impressive array of awards, tours and collaborations in its bio, employed a refined, transparent tone and a fine range of nuance within a relatively narrow volume of dynamics. The effect could seem like underplaying, and perhaps it was in Beethoven's late Quartet in C-sharp minor, Opus 131. But within that expressive compass, a lot was going on. The lettering was small, but the message was large.

The mystery about Schubert's "Quartettsatz" ("quartet movement"), which opened the program, is why Schubert never completed the four-movement work for which this stand-alone movement seems a start. Or did Schubert even intend a complete quartet? It's like his "Unfinished" Symphony that way; in both cases, nobody knows why.

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Does Ravel's Quartet in F Major burn with passion or only smolder? You can say burn, but then how to explain the shrouded, grieving slow movement that interrupts the exuberance all around? Fire breaks out again in a "fast and agitated" — and it really was so with these players — finale.

As the afternoon's finale, the most mysterious work of all: Beethoven's Opus 131, composed in his next to last year. The form — seven interlocking movements — is strange enough, but what is Beethoven trying to say with these metaphysical musings? They begin with a fugue suspended in time and end with a finale striding off to — where? Triumph? A march into the jaws of fate? Both of these and everything in between?

All three performances were finely calibrated to bring out the tension between the calm and the dramatic, the inward and the outward, the abiding mystery. In Schubert, stormy surges were offset by a mellow glow in the more reflective passages.

The clarity of the playing in Ravel — none of your hazy impressionism here — illuminated the two themes as, in different guises, they wended through the four movements. The Beethoven work could have benefited from more of the gravity — even gruffness — that other ensembles like the Emerson bring to it, but the intricacy and detail of the playing provided an intimate glimpse into the workings of Beethoven's mind. (Incidentally, prepare for an onslaught of Beethoven as his 250th anniversary nears.)

To solve another mystery: The Calidore takes its name from "California" and "dore," French for "golden," as in "Golden State," where the group trained and resides.

The adagio from Beethoven's Quartet, Opus 74 (the "Harp"), served as an encore.


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