With fight-to-the-finish playoffs taking place in professional basketball and hockey, the Pacifica Quartet is enduring their own kind of endurance test by taking on a complete Shostakovich cycle on four successive nights.
Though not as grueling as the Mandelring Quartet's feat at last year's Salzburg Festival, when the German ensemble fit the four concerts into only two days, the challenge of playing for the first time in a new space, rehearsing each afternoon for four hours before taking a dinner break and returning for the main event, lends an authentic spontaneity to the occasion.
With the performance of String Quartets 9-12, on May 24, the Pacifica—led by a first violinist (Simin Ganatra) who prefers to lead from within rather than dominating and featuring a violist (Masumi Per Rostad) whose size and beauty of sound suggests a career as a soloist—showed it is ideally suited to taking on the challenge.
Violinist Sibbi Bernhardsson and cellist Brandon Vamos round out this formidable line up.
Each player has not only virtuoso chops and charisma, but humility as well. The resulting equanimity in voicing, which at first almost seems like Shostakovich lite, allows the music's narrative to flow smoothly rather than devolving into self-conscious personal musical documents weighed down by biography.
The 11th Quartet's five-minute elegy in memory of Vasily Shirinsky, for example, gains the transcendent simplicity that Shostakovich so often seeks.
Significantly, the Pacidfica handles Shostakovich's predilection for constantly changing duple and triple meters so smoothly that without the score it would be hard to tell that anything untoward was going on. This metrical freedom, in turn, enables the players to have a freedom in phrasing that avoids completely the slightest sense of routine.
As impressive as the quartet's first two recorded installments for Cedille are, its live performances of the entire cycle such as these that most profoundly reveal the composer's emotional core and his complex characteristics as a composer.
As the late quartets begin to roll by, the moods of sadness and tragedy begin to subside in favor of of an anger and brutality that culminates in the terrifying, 20-minute second movement of the String Quartet No. 12, with its explicit use of the trill chains from Beethoven's Grosse Fugue—also numbered as Opus 133.
And, beginning with the No. 9, Shostakovich begins flirting with his large-scale orchestral symphonic persona, throwing in references to his First Symphony and first Piano Concerto, and generally storming the musical battlements, when he is not being deeply depressed.
As before, Shostakovich biographer Wendy Lesser and Montreal tenor Richard Turp provided a probing discussion of the evening's program, focusing on the many muses in the composer's life and his relationships with the Beethoven Quartet who had been trying out and premiering Shostakovich's Quartets since giving the first Moscow performance of the First Quartet in 1938.
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