Regrets, I Have a Few: Pacifica Quartet Ends Residence at Metropolitan Museum with Beethoven Cycle

United StatesUnited States Beethoven: Pacifica String Quartet, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, 12.11.2011, 07.01.2012, 25.02.2012, 10.03.2012 (GG)

Beethoven: Quartet in D Major, Op. 18, No. 3, Quartet in E flat Major, Op. 127, Quartet in C Major, Op. 59, No. 3 “Razumovsky,” 12.11.2011
Quartet in F Major, Op. 18, No. 1, Quartet in F Major, Op. 59, No. 1 “Razumovsky,” 07.01.2012
Quartet in A Major, Op. 18, No. 5, Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132, 25.02.2012
Quartet in C Minor, Op. 18, No. 4, Quartet in E Minor, Op. 59, No. 2 “Razumovsky,” Quartet in F Major, Op. 135, 10.03.2012

Through the fall and late winter of 2011-2012, the Pacifica Quartet played the entirety of Beethoven’s String Quartets at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the series left me with three regrets: that I had missed two of the concerts due to illness, that the group is not planning on recording the music (as they had done through last year’s excellent Shostakovich cycle), and that, in the final concert, that they had to announce they would no longer be in residence at the museum, after three artistically fulfilling seasons. The most regretful of these is the lack of recording to preserve for my own memory and those of others the fresh approach and excellent thinking the quartet brought to this music. As much as the pieces are at the core of Western cultural achievement, they can seem commonplace, and the cycle was anything but.

You could generally categorize their approach as more ‘classical’ in style, in a vein related to that of the Talich Quartet, rather than the more Romantic manner of the Vegh or Alban Berg, or the muscular and modern Emerson cycle. The Pacifica has more weight than the Talich, at least in these concerts, which of course place them in a public setting, speaking to an audience, rather than the intimate and personal conversation the Talich is having amongst its members in the recording studio. In an interview before the series began, Pacifica violist Per Rostad touched on their musical background, which he identified as a muscular American style of playing by way of the training of Russian émigré string players. That’s certainly true, but it doesn’t tell the whole story, nor hint at the overall elegance and intellectual saneness of their interpretations.

The programming put together early, middle and late quartets, so the consistency of their style came through, one of the strength of the concerts. Beethoven’s compositions went through the same ideal maturing process that people go through, which is not that they change from one kind of person to another, but that they move constantly on a line towards the goal of becoming, clearly, the person they are, paring away superfluities and honing in on essence. You could hear this in action.

Musically, that meant the jauntiness of the Opus 18 quartets — some great fiddling in the “Presto” of No. 3, lovely Mozartean cantabile in No. 5, and an appropriate and plain-fun folk sensibility in No. 4 — gave way to the unabashed exuberance of the scherzi in the late quartets, and that the lyrical, slow movements gradually became the medium for ever deeper, ever more allusive and esoteric explorations of his inner life. It’s all Beethoven, through every era, and the Pacifica’s concept is that the voice is the same, even if the manner of speaking, the phrases and gestures, differ through time.

There’s more to what they’ve done than just this basic question of the style of play; the Pacifica also has a distinctive and fresh way with the music, rooted in Beethoven’s rhythms. He has so many profound virtues — like his way of constructing large scale forms out of small pieces, plus his combination of intellectual brilliance and emotional power — that it’s common for musicians, listeners, scholars and critics to overlook that Beethoven was the most creative and rhythmically forceful composer in Western classical music until Stravinsky. He was the great master of tension and release, and conveyed that as much with rhythm as with harmony, and to my ears even more prevalently with rhythm. Using basic syncopations and accents, he shoved the pulse around inside of an exact tempo and rhythmic structure. Sometimes that was the point of a musical idea, like Opus 18, No. 3; at others it was a subtle way to bring the tension to the exact breaking point, as in the last two dozen measures of the third movement of Symphony No 5, leading to the attacca. This, more than anything else, characterized the Pacifica style with Beethoven. They didn’t exaggerate the rhythmic ideas; they merely brought them to the fore when they were actually the primary point of the music.

They made this work through an exactitude of tempo and rhythm in every moment that rivaled what Rubinstein brought to his playing of the Piano Sonatas. Through accelerando and rallentando, through every shifting pulse and syncopation, the sensation of the musical moment hitting the musical time with absolute precision was there. And it was natural, breathing and supple, like a massive tree rooted in the earth, coursing with life and turning with the planet. And like such a tree, it never seemed ponderous, as it was always reaching for the heavens. After talking with Rostad, I am certain this comes from the ensemble’s mastery of modern and contemporary repertory — especially Elliott Carter’s quartets, some of the most rhythmically challenging music in the literature.

The Pacifica’s sound in the cycle was consistently transparent, with clear instrumental voices, and always with weight sufficient for each musical passage. The violist is one of the strengths of the group, with the heft of his sound and his lovely, exact intonation. He adds so much life and musicality that it expands what the quartet can do, as can be heard on their Shostakovich Quartet cycle, now being released on Cedille.

There were many moments to highlight. They played Op. 127 with beautiful intellectual coherence and a symphonic sense of structure, and the “Razumovsky” quartets No. 1 and No. 3 had exceptional clarity and unanimity of articulation and a sense of natural breath. They captured the shifting, turbulent emotions of Op. 132 with sympathy and depth, and used some judicious and effective portamento; they played the first movement of the Op. 18, No. 5 with phrasing that combined legato and accented notes in a way I have never heard before, and in the final concert, the overall looseness — some combination of fatigue and the élan of freedom — was joyous and fun and did nothing to diminish the grace, power and sweetness of expression of their playing. Op. 135 had an appropriate, dreamlike quality, the feeling of Beethoven’s interior imagination finding its way to universality, and was a wonderful thing to hear.

This is the kind of playing that I feel belongs to the highest order of interpretation, to reveal the clear, simple and important truth of something that decades of accumulated habits and accepted interpretations have obscured. The Pacifica’s Beethoven cycle was like the restoration of the brilliance of a painting that had been darkened by centuries of dirt and neglect. Rather than accept the conventional wisdom that the way the picture looks right now is how it has always looked, they merely wiped away the gunk to gaze at the wonder beneath.

George Grella