Soaring, Fearless Hamelin and Pacifica Quartet

United StatesUnited States Shostakovich, Ornstein, Dvořák: Pacifica Quartet (Simin Gonatra, Sibbi Bernhardsson, violins; Masumi Per Rostad, viola; Brandon Vamos, cello), Marc-André Hamelin (piano), presented by San Francisco Performances at SFJAZZCenter, San Francisco. 11.11.2013 (HS)

Shostakovich: String Quartet No 7 in F-sharp minor, Op. 108
Ornstein: Quintet for Piano and Strings, Op. 92
Dvořák: Piano Quintet in A Major, Op. 81


It’s totally understandable why the Pacifica Quartet opened its recital Monday night with the Shostakovich String Quartet No. 7. It’s relatively short, and mostly quiet, which sets up a dramatic contrast with the piece that followed: Leo Ornstein’s outsized and rhetorically expansive Quintet for Piano and Strings. Not to denigrate Ornstein, whose life spanned the entire twentieth century, but it’s difficult to escape the notion that Shostakovich said more in the 13 minutes of his nervous quartet than Ornstein did in the 40 minutes of big gestures.

Not that the musicians gave Ornstein’s music anything less than their fullest. The Pacifica lavished admirable precision and attention to detail to every phrase, executing complex shifts in time signature and monster demands in articulation, and did it with ease. So did pianist Marc-André Hamelin, who eats seemingly impossible piano music for breakfast. And there’s no denying that the work, written in 1927 when Ornstein was 35 years old (he lived to 108), shows a command of compositional techniques and a flair for distinctive sonorities even within the well-trod path of the Romantic string quartet plus piano.

The most distinctive aspect of this music makes itself felt early on. Born in the Ukraine, the son of a cantor, Ornstein harks back to those memories in the first movement. After a restlessly shifting introduction marked “Allegro barbaro,” the pace shifts into neutral and the first violin intones a plaintive melody. Based on a scale that would be familiar to any synagogue’s cantor, the tune comes and goes through the piece but the sense of it, the perfume of it, returns with more power as the music goes on. By the hard-driving finale, its Oriental aura pervades everything, only to subside into a quiet and spacious resting place at the very end.

Ornstein’s harmonic language is tonal and lushly Romantic for the most part, going for rich sonorities and long-limbed melodies. He peppers the score with diversions into unusual time signatures, sometimes changing from measure to measure, and drops in Stravinsky-esque tone clusters for rhythmic emphasis. At times the combination of those elements and the Jewish music bring to mind Shostakovich’s great Piano Trio No. 2.

Maybe that was the link with the quartet that opened proceedings. The musicians delivered a performance that deftly articulated the composer’s delicately etched sense of foreboding, even terror. Rhythms haunted. Sonorities chilled. Melodies snaked from one player to the next with insinuation. Clearly, violinists Simin Gonatra and Sibbi Bernhardsson, violist Masumi Per Rostad and cellist Brandon Vamos have absorbed Shostakovich’s music into their bones. They have performed the full cycle of his quartets (gaining raves for one in 2010 at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they are artists-in-residence) and recorded them brilliantly along with selections from other Soviet composers on a set of CDs.

After intermission, Hamelin and the quartet brought a welcome combination of precision and warmth to Dvořák’s Piano Quintet in A-Major. The emphasis in the well-controlled performance was on clarity and refinement. This would have been a perfect performance to follow with an open score.

The evening really felt like chamber music in a small salon. The reverberation-free acoustic of the SFJAZZCenter’s main auditorium, intentionally designed as if it were a recording studio to maximize the skillful use of amplification in jazz, practically insisted on this approach. Any attempt to make the music too broad would have fallen flat. This one soared.

Harvey Steiman

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