Enthusiasm and Passion from the Pacifica Quartet

CanadaCanada Haydn, Shostakovich and Beethoven: Pacifica Quartet (Simin Ganatra and Sibbi Bernhardsson, violins; Masumi Per Rostad, viola; Bandon Vamos, cello), Vancouver Playhouse, Vancouver, BC, 13.1.2015 (GN)

Haydn: String Quartet in B-flat major, Op. 76, No 4 (“Sunrise”)
Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 9 in E-flat major, Op. 117
Beethoven: Quartet No. 8 in E minor, Op. 59, No.2


Over the past decade, the Pacifica Quartet has climbed to an enviable position among young American quartets; the group is currently Quartet-In-Residence at the University of Indiana and recently recorded a complete Shostakovich cycle to world-wide acclaim for Cedille. Their Vancouver debut was originally intended to be a bit of a celebration, with 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, the Shostakovich Ninth made up for it, and I immediately responded to the group’s enthusiasm and eagerness. They invest themselves in each work, and have strong ideas about where they are going. Each voice is capable of both strength and beauty, with the iron hand of first violinist Simin Ganatra keeping everything in place.

Balance and cohesion were the overriding attractions in the Ninth, which is challenging, in five movements without a break. After a rich and seamless exposition, the players maintained an underlying pulse and dramatic variety to the end. Tempo relations between movements were judged very well, setting up the long fugal finale with the right type of inevitability—a genuine accomplishment, based on a lot of hard thought. I was a little surprised that their reading didn’t unearth more of the work’s stark, disturbingly jagged qualities. In the late 1960s, in this same hall, when I heard the Borodin Quartet in traverse the eleven existing quartets (plus the surprise world-premiere of the Twelfth), they left a deep imprint: sharp and severe, filled with foreboding, protestation, and wildness. But the Pacifica’s treatment tended to alternate between smooth and moulded in the more lyrical episodes, and drivingly dramatic in the more searing ones.

The two Adagios featured textures that were quite fulsome, expressive in a more comfortable European post-romantic way, evoking Janacek or other Bohemians, the more ruminative Bartok, or early Schoenberg. Similarly, the ensemble seldom pared down its texture and dynamics to identify a truly quiet, intimate world. Pain was clearly etched but was more “up-front,” rather than subtly burning. The famous marches were expertly delivered, but only hinted at their bizarre, caustic underpinnings, and though the strongest dramatic moments had verve and frenzy, they could have used more real fiber. The playing was marvelous and full of confidence, but its expressive gloss, which fostered cohesion and flow, also made the result more generic, diffusing idiosyncrasy and hiding some of the emotional nerve ends.

To be sure, the Ninth is one of Shostakovich’s more comfortable quartets (even if the composer burned his first draft), so there may be some case for a less severe treatment. Just a few months ago, the Danish Quartet performed the Ninth in a softer way, too—an interpretation not nearly as strong and commanding, but one that 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 these are some of the consequences of globalization and cultural assimilation; the sharply-etched Russian and Hungarian characteristics are increasingly less important and understandable to younger players. On the other hand, I do like the lean textures and sharpness in Shostakovich from the young Jerusalem Quartet—who are Russian.

The sterling Haydn Op. 76, No. 4 Quartet was also enjoyable. Perhaps there was a bit of a romantic veneer over the initial ‘Sunrise’ motif, but the Pacifica played it the same way every time it returned. In between, they pushed forward with the greatest drive and rustic abandon. This is not the most complex way to proceed but it held interest and was quite appropriate to Haydn. The lovely Adagio, taken at a very deliberate pace, was not as intimate as it might be but quite beautiful and suspended, and maintained its line well, even with a hint of over-adornment. Rusticity returned in the Minuet, while the finale had considerable wit, even if a little unremitting at times and with a somewhat excessive dynamic surge 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. In the opening movement, virtually every dynamic contrast and sforzando was inflated, and in the Adagio molto, 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.

If the Beethoven was not representative of the group’s talents, I was quite impressed overall. The Pacifica executes extremely well, achieves considerable weight and burnished warmth, and sees the longer structural line 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 they are sometimes tempted to seek extra projection or ‘push’ and, in slower music in particular, additional beautification or shaping. I could predict when they would attempt this—which sort of spoils the show. They also respond better to wit than to charm. Though their tendency to ‘rev up’ in more dramatic passages must be a great deal of fun, 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, generating a lot of activity, but not particularly powerful or exciting. But all that said, these indulgences are really nothing more than what it means to be an enthusiastic and passionate young ensemble.

Geoffrey Newman

Previously published in a slightly different form on http://www.vanclassicalmusic.com

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