Pacifica Quartet, Works by Haydn, Shostakovich and Beethoven, Playhouse, January 13, 2015.

Over the past decade, the Pacifica Quartet has climbed to an enviable position among young American quartets, currently Quartet-In-Residence at the University of Indiana and recently recording a complete Shostakovich quartet cycle to world-wide acclaim for Cedille.  This was their Vancouver debut and it was originally intended to be a bit of a celebration, with the ensemble playing Dvorak’s famous Piano Quintet with their esteemed Indiana colleague, pianist Menahem Pressler, an artist who has indeed visited Vancouver’s Friends of Chamber Music almost every year for the past four decades. Unfortunately, the pianist was indisposed and the closing work was changed to Beethoven’s second Razumovsky Quartet. 

While a bit of a disappointment, this then allowed the focus to be on the Pacifica’s much-admired Shostakovich and, on this occasion, it was the 9th quartet that was chosen.  I should say that I did immediately respond to the enthusiasm and eagerness of this ensemble.  They seemingly want to invest themselves in each work they play, and they appear to have strong ideas about where they are going.  Each individual voice is capable of both strength and beauty and the iron hand of first violinist Simin Ganatra seems to keep everything in place. 

The overriding attraction of this Shostakovich interpretation was its balance and cohesion.  The 9th quartet is a challenging five-movement composition, played continuously, and it was given quite a rich and seamless exposition from beginning to end, always maintaining an underlying pulse for all the variety in its dramatic postures.  Part of this success was that tempo relations between movements were judged very well, ultimately setting up the long fugal finale to bring everything home with the right type of inevitably.  I think this was a genuine accomplishment -- and presumably an outcome of a lot of hard thought.  What did surprise me though is how little this reading attempted to unearth the stark or disturbingly-jagged qualities of Shostakovich’s writing.  When I heard the Borodin Quartet traverse the eleven then-written quartets as a young lad in this same hall in the late-1960’s (one of the supreme moments in this organization’s history, by the way, since the world premiere of 12th quartet also took place “as a little surprise”), it left a deep imprint: the sharpness and severity of the utterance, the foreboding, the protestation and wildness, the disembodied and painful still, and so on.   But there was not the same feeling in the Pacifica’s treatment, which tended to alternate between the smooth and moulded in the more lyrical episodes and drivingly dramatic in the more searing ones. 

The two Adagios especially featured textures that were quite fulsome, expressive in what I would regard as a more comfortable European post-romantic way.  Sometimes I thought of Janacek or other Bohemians; other times, the more ruminative Bartok or early Schoenberg.  Similarly, the ensemble seldom pared down its texture or dynamics to identify a truly quiet, intimate world.  Pain was clearly etched but it seemed to be more of an up-front pain than a subtly-burning Shostakovich pain.  All the famous jog-trot marches were expertly delivered -- but did they really hint at a bizarre, caustic underpinning?  The strongest dramatic moments were carried with verve and frenzy -- but how much real fiber underlay this?   The playing was marvelous and full of confidence but I do fear that its expressive gloss, which certainly fostered the cohesion and flow, also made the work somewhat more generic, diffusing its idiosyncrasy and hiding a variety of its emotional nerve ends.

To be sure, the 9th is one of Shostakovich’s more comfortable quartets (even if the composer did burn the manuscript of his first attempt at it!), so there may be some case for a less severe treatment.  Just a few months ago, the Danish Quartet performed this same quartet in a softer way too.  Their interpretation was not nearly as strong and commanding as the present one but it still found many half-lights and moments where the world seemed to stand still.  But times seem to be changing.  The last two Bartok performances that I saw from younger ensembles were also less acerbic than many classic Hungarian interpretations.  Where is this ‘global warming’ coming from?  Perhaps we are now really seeing some of the consequences of globalization and cultural assimilation in music; the sharply-etched Russian and Hungarian characteristics are becoming increasingly less important and indeed less understandable to younger players.  On the other hand, I must say that I do like the lean textures and sharpness in the young Jerusalem Quartet’s Shostakovich -- but they of course are Russian. 

The sterling Haydn Op. 76, No. 4 Quartet was also enjoyable.  Perhaps there was a bit of a romantic veneer placed over the initial ‘Sunrise’ motif, but the Pacifica was very consistent in playing it the same way every time that they returned to it.  In between, they pushed forward with the greatest drive, generating a sort of rustic abandon each time.  This is not the most complex way to proceed but I thought that it held its interest and was quite appropriate to Haydn.  The lovely slow movement, taken at a deliberate pace, was not as intimate as it might be but it was quite beautiful and suspended, and maintained its line well, even if there was a hint of over-adornment.  The Minuet was full of the right type of rustic vigour again, while the finale carried the work home well with considerable wit, the only reservation being that it was a little unremitting at times and introduced a somewhat excessive surge in dynamics at the end. 

I am not sure how long the ensemble had to prepare the Beethoven Op. 59, No. 2, but this was not successful; most of it came out as pretty ‘forced.’  Virtually every dynamic contrast and sforzando was inflated in the opening movement.  The slow movement is marked Adagio molto, but I have really never heard anything as slow as this.  There appeared to be a real struggle with expression; far too luxuriant and romantic, full of excessive portamenti, shaping and vibrato.  Even if they were playing Dvorak, I might find it overexpressed.  The Allegretto fared best; the high spirits of the finale sort of ran away with themselves.

I think that the Beethoven was not at all representative of the group’s talents, and leaving this aside, I was quite impressed overall.  The Pacifica executes extremely well, achieves considerable weight and burnished warmth, and sees the longer structural line of a work clearly and intelligently.  More important, they seem to communicate the joy of music making.  At this stage, they do not always relax fully into a work’s natural motion or beauty, and it seems to be a fairly general observation that they are sometimes tempted to seek extra projection or ‘push’ and, in slower music in particular, some type of additional beautification or shaping.  I found that I could predict when they would attempt this -- which sort of spoils the show.  It also seems that they respond better to wit than to charm.  The quartet’s tendency to ‘rev up’ in more dramatic passages must be a great deal of fun, but I am not really sure what it adds. Their push forward is typically linear and metrical, stressing downbeats or following an ostinato pulse without much dynamic variation.  This frequently seems to make the music more ‘busy’ than particularly powerful or exciting.  But, of course, these types of indulgence are really nothing more than what it means to be an enthusiastic and passionate young quartet!


© Geoffrey Newman 2015