Pacifica Quartet scales the Everest of Beethoven’s Op. 130

Mon Jan 11, 2010 at 6:53 pm

By Gerald Fisher

The Pacifica Quartet’s performance of Beethoven’s Opus 130 Quartet at Mandel Hall Sunday demonstrated once again that the piece really works best with the composer’s original ending –– the stupendous Grosse Fuge.

The Pacifica Quartet (Simin Ganatra and Sibbi Bernhardsson, violins, Masumi Per Rostad, viola and Brandon Varmos, cello) rightly opted for this solution over the less difficult final movement provided by the composer at the behest of his publisher.

The Beethoven was the meat and potatoes of an afternoon concert which included three of Dvorak’s Cypresses (Nos 2, 3, and 11) and Jennifer Higdon’s rhythmically propulsive Voices (1993).

The Dvorak selections were dispatched with a good deal of style and a pleasingly relaxed expressiveness. The jauntiness of the third piece (No. 11) seemed to prefigure the folkishness of the German Dance fourth movement of the Beethoven Quartet.

The more substantial Higdon work, dedicated to the Pacifica, was an altogether different affair, aggressive and insistent, with complex interaction and harmonics. The first movement, Blitz, lived up to its name, and the work’s three contrasting sections flowed together without pause. The music was interesting and varied enough throughout. A soft viola passage leading into a babble of activity brought this vigorous piece to a harmonic resolution.

And so to the Beethoven, which was worth waiting for. In their time the late quartets were greeted as incomprehensible or, worse, as evidence of their composer’s mental instability. Nonetheless these monumental works have spoken to generations of musicians and continue to intrigue today with their fiercely individualistic musical choices.

The Opus 130 without the Grosse Fuge is a problem without a solution. The five movements leading up to the impetuous finale are loosely connected pieces that only cohere when the powerful surge of purely formal music makes all that preceded fall into line.

The first movement is a whole drama in itself, with a grim little adagio leading to an outburst of energy with contrasting passages and reiterated motifs. The Pacifica had all this diversity under control. Without any harshness, they caught the biggest moments with style and finesse.

The short two-minute Presto manages to sandwich in three sections and some jokey violin glissandi all brought off by the Pacifica with aplomb. The Andante third movement progresses by fits and starts and seems on the brink of a major discovery –– but never quite gets there. It sneaks up on a fugue but backs off and comes to an abrupt end. The pieces will be picked up later in the Grosse Fuge.

After the short German Dance section, the Pacifica launched into two of the most exacting slices of music Beethoven ever carved. The soulful Cavatina with its achingly long lines calls for an intensity of control that the Pacifica managed with just a hint of unsteadiness. The work is inspired by vocal form, but is transfigured into the purest of string modulations.

The Pacifica, with scarcely a pause, moved from the final G of the Cavatina into the fierce G in octaves at the opening of the Grosse Fuge — fifteen minutes of the most challenging music written for string quartet before the advent of 20th-century modernism.

It was a bumpy ride, but the seasoned veterans negotiated the rapids with skill and balance. Lines were clean and the group seemed to be breathing together throughout. The hysterical trills from the violins were rendered cleanly as were the pregnant pauses between sections. This was stimulating playing of music that moves from despair to the kind of hope implied by the invocation of the formal purity of Bach, providing a grand and ultimately satisfying conclusion to the whole quartet.

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