South Mountain Concerts, Pittsfield, MA
October 6, 2019
by Michael J. Moran
Chamber music concerts most often feature duos, trios, or quartets. This one presented an unusual program of one string sextet and two string octets, including the acknowledged masterpiece of the genre and a brand new piece commissioned for the current ensemble.
Founded in 1958 by conductor Sir Neville Marriner and now led by Music Director (and violinist) Joshua Bell, the London-based Academy of St. Martin in the Fields orchestra formed its chamber ensemble in 1967, according to their program notes, “to perform the larger scale chamber music repertoire with players who customarily worked together.” The performers at South Mountain are all principal players of the orchestra.
Only two days after giving its world premiere in Columbus, Georgia, the ensemble opened the concert with British composer Sally Beamish’s 18-minute Partita for String Octet. She writes that since a partita is “traditionally a suite for a solo instrument,” she treats the eight musicians as both “a single entity” and “an ensemble of soloists.” Incorporating subtle quotes from Bach, Handel, and Mendelssohn respectively, its three short movements sparkled with grace and stylistic variety in this nimble performance.
The program’s first half ended with a heartfelt account of the second string sextet by Brahms. Completed in 1865, the piece recalls the composer’s deep infatuation of several years earlier with the young soprano Agathe von Siebold. From a glowing opening “Allegro non troppo” through a delicate “Scherzo” and tender “Poco adagio” to a life-embracing “Poco allegro” finale, the ensemble was deeply engaged.
Intermission was followed by a stunning rendition of Mendelssohn’s octet, which quotes the same Handel theme as Beamish does. Dating from 1825, when the composer was only sixteen, its most famous movement is the fleet “Scherzo,” which these musicians played exactly as Mendelssohn specifies: “Allegro leggierissimo” (as fast and light as possible). They were equally commanding in the brisk opening “Allegro,” the radiant “Andante,” and the exuberant closing “Presto.”
The scenic Berkshire setting in the wooded hills of Pittsfield and the warm acoustics of the 101-year-old concert hall has attracted discerning audiences since 1918 to this celebrated early fall chamber music series established by legendary music patroness Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge.