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Review: Pacifica Quartet

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The Pacifica Quartet
  • The Pacifica Quartet

4.5 stars

Ensemble Music Series; Indiana History Center; May 11.

This time we had a case of "the last was the best," in string quartet playing. Ensemble Music closed its current five-concert season Wednesday with its first engagement of the Pacifica Quartet, who took up residence as Faculty Quartet on the Urbana-Champaign campus of the University of Illinois in 2004. Its players are first violinist Simin Ganatra, second violinist Sibbi Bernhardssohn, violist Masumi Per Rostad and cellist Brandon Vamos. Ganatra is the female of the group.

These musicians did a superlative job with the Schumann Quartet No. 1 in A Minor, Op. 41 No 1, the Schostakovich Quartet No. 8 (the one out of his 15 that everybody "always" plays) and, far from least, Beethoven's Quartet No. 15 in A Minor, Op. 132 — a "late" quartet and therefore the best concluding work possible in chamber music for these forces.

Schumann's first string quartet shows lots of craft in its often contrapuntal construction, but little Schumannesque melody per se. Its pastel harmonies flow by with an almost formulaic sharing of the line among the four instruments. Its most interesting movement is the second, a Scherzo of Mendelssohnian fleetness.

At once we heard not only a near perfect balance among the players but beautifully matched, equally centered vibratos. For once we did not hear the first violinist taking the "lead" and keeping it throughout, as tends to occur among certain major touring groups. Furthermore, the Pacifica players tossed off their ensemble technique as though native to them.

This brand of playing continued in the dour, five-connected-movement Shostakovich Quartet (1959). Written in the depths of despair, three of the movements marked Largo, including the last two, all No. 8's anguish was reflected in the three-struck-chord sequence heard often in second Largo. It's interesting to note that the composer planned to end his life with this work, but instead lived another 16 years, wrote eight more string quartets and completed 15 symphonies as well. The Eighth marked a touchstone of his work in enduring his life as a Soviet composer on bad terms with its government, at no time worse than during Stalin's era, ending in 1953.

We've had Beethoven's Op. 132 performed several times over recent years, but the Pacifica gave it the best live account I've heard of it. As one of five Beethoven "late" quartets, this music reaches an exalted plane of achievement that no other composer has approached, before or since. Our group took the opening movement faster than I usually hear it, but it lost nothing on that account. The players sailed through its unique combination of supreme beauty and emotional depth, nowhere more than in the slow movement, a double theme and variation structure. Its first theme builds in intensity such that during its third repetition, the intensity is more searing than anything else in quartet literature, bringing tears to many.

Is the Pacifica as good as the German based Artemis Quartet, to which I gave top honors in its first appearance here in 2008? Well, just wait till next year on May 2, and Ensemble Music will allow you to judge for yourself.

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