A Dynamic and Arresting Recital by the Pacifica Quartet

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Haydn, Shostakovich, Ravel: Pacifica Quartet (Simin Ganatra & Sigurbjörn Bernhardsson [violins], Masumi Per Rostad [viola], Brandon Vamos [cello]), Wigmore Hall, London, 10.3.2017. (CS)

Haydn – String Quartet in G Op.76 No.1
Shostakovich – String Quartet No.3 in F Op.73
Ravel – String Quartet in F

Prior to this dynamic and arresting recital at the Wigmore Hall, I had not heard the Indiana-based Pacifica Quartet perform – but I will certainly now be looking out for future opportunities to enjoy their technical brilliance, sharp-edged characterisation and vivid rapport. I was impressed with the cleanness of the Quartet’s sound, the clarity of the textures, the sustained equipoise of the ensemble, and the striking élan of their playing. The four members were utterly in accord – with regard to both their expressive intent and the means by which to communicate it. The sustained vitality of their playing was invigorating; the vibrant music-making banished my Friday-night fatigue in an instant.

The three brusque chords that open the Allegro con spirito of Haydn’s Op.76 No.1 were an audience-rousing call to attention, before cellist Brandon Vamos initiated the imitative first theme, breezily posing a pert question for his fellow players to answer in turn. The tone was rich and full; every detail – dynamic contrasts, sforzandos, changes of texture – was used to heighten the drama. In the development section, the phrases and motifs were strongly defined but the players’ exuberant style was allied with absolute accuracy and astonishing textural lucidity.

Interpreting Haydn’s a mezza voce marking, the Pacifica began the Adagio sostenuto with a slightly cool, distanced tone, but bloomed through the long first phrase, relishing the slow, rich harmonic progressions. Expressive dialogue between leader Simin Ganatra and Vamos, framing the staccato repetitions of the inner voices, created an accumulating momentum, while the confident, warm tone of second violinist Sigurbjörn Bernhardsson was a perfect match for Ganatra as the fiddles’ decorative arch led persuasively into the recapitulation. Throughout this movement, I was struck by the Pacifica’s ability to establish and move between a variety of moods with flawless solidarity.

The Menuetto had a Beethovenian briskness about it. The subito fortissimo at the end of the first phrase hinted at a potential, incipient wildness – but one that remained totally under control however spirited the material, and which was quelled in the insouciant, folky Trio, in which Ganatra pranced vivaciously above surprisingly full-toned pizzicato chords. Faultless intonation and ensemble characterised the Allegro ma no troppo in which the alternations between major and minor modes and the assertive phrasing created a theatrical air – the fortissimo dash with which the movement closed made for a fittingly flamboyant finale.

Shostakovich’s Third String Quartet was the only work which the composer wrote in 1946 – a sign of the latent unease felt by Shostakovich at this time. He prefaced each of the five movements with a foreboding superscription – ‘Calm awareness of the future cataclysm’, ‘Rumblings of unrest and anticipation’, ‘The forces of war unleashed’, ‘Homage to the Dead’, and an unsettling ‘Eternal Question’: ‘Why and to what purpose?’

However, the Pacifica Quartet allowed the shadows, darkness and despair to unfold gradually, commencing the Allegretto with a lightness that recalled the preceding Haydn – though the good humour was at times underscored with a sharp, satirical bite. The precision, intensity and tautness of the ensemble never resulted in stiffness; there was a prevailing sense of assured rhetoric combined with inventiveness, particularly in the fugal development section where the finely crafted subjects passed between the players with growing anxiety and, later, fury.

The viola ostinato which opens the Moderato was insistent, hinting at defiance; passed by Masumi Per Rostad to the cello, the repeating notes formed the foundation for Ganatra’s wispy explorations, even the most minute of which seemed to communicate the elusive ‘narrative’ which Shostakovich’s use of titles suggests is invested in this ‘war quartet’. The violence of the Allegro non troppo was brutal and shocking, but it was always contained within the rigorously constructed contrapuntal form – the ensemble remained tight, however changeable the unpredictable pulse. The way the individual players made their pronouncements ‘speak’ against the pounding background was noteworthy.

The wide vibrato employed in the Adagio immediately indicated that this was the emotional heart of the quartet: it was as if the passacaglia trembled from within. The ponderous repetitions acquired a brooding concentration that was coloured by strong assertive solo statements; Per Rostad’s powerful contribution was particularly commanding. The cello’s sustained C-string effected a smooth elision into the final Moderato, in which the return of the lilting material from the opening movement was seductively phrased, and contrasted disquietingly with more melancholy and wistful episodes. The final, fading F major triad conveyed both reconciliation and resignation.

The Pacifica Quartet performed a cycle of the Shostakovich Quartets at the Wigmore Hall in 2012, and their recording of this work received glowing commendation by several MWI reviewers (The Soviet Experience). This performance confirmed why.

Ravel’s Quartet in F concluded the recital. After the ravages and intensity of the Shostakovich, ‘flowing elegance’ and ‘exquisite restraint’ best summed up the Pacifica’s beautiful rendition of the Allegro moderato. Très doux. The refined melody played by perfectly attuned first violin and viola was supported by rich pizzicato from the cello; though the sound gave the impression of something being slightly withheld, the line was subtly enrichened and the effect was of an incipient tension beneath the air of relaxed sophistication. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the pizzicati of the Assez vif. Très rhythmé spring to life with such vivacity and vividness; the rhythmic displacements and dynamic ebbs and flows were absorbing. Relaxation came with the ensuing cello lament but it was not long before rhythmic twitches were being felt and the effortless transition back to the opening material was hypnotic.

It was a joy to hear Per Rostad’s soulful viola melody in the rhapsodic Très lent. While the cello’s tremolo introduced a fraught intensity, the second theme re-established a yearning mellowness. The rhythmic complexities were skilfully negotiated and the muted close was tenderly affecting. Vigour and robustness marked the final Vif et agité; the Pacifica Quartet were not afraid to give their sound the odd rough edge, contrasting more abrasive motifs with, by turns, shining lyricism and delicacy. The music’s frequent fluctuations became simply inevitable, and the excitement of the closing moments was palpable. A tremendous concert.

Claire Seymour

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