Pacifica members deliver memorable, deeply moving account of Shostakovich’s Eighth Quartet

Mon Jan 31, 2011 at 1:17 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

The Pacifica Quartet’s ongoing cycle of the complete quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich reached its midpoint Sunday afternoon at Ganz Hall, and, if anything, seemed to be gathering steam with playing of an even greater electricity and eloquence than the first two installments.

The third concert in the series brings us to the halfway mark of the Russian composer’s fifteen essays in the genre, and this program centered on Shostakovich’s best-known chamber work, the Quartet No. 8.

As the most performed work of the cycle, the dark and tragic Eighth Quartet has, inevitably, been taken to reflect the style of Shostakovich’s entire quartet canon, a canard that the Pacifica’s cycle is doing much to refute.

Still, its hard not to be struck by the work’s intense expression and clear autobiographical elements. Though outwardly dedicated “to the victims of war and fascism” after a visit by the composer to bombed-out Dresden, it’s clear that the music also held a greatly personal significance for Shostakovich. There is copious use of his DSCH musical motif, a vehement reprise of the Jewish melody from his Second Piano Trio and prominent quotations from his opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, a work that caused him great anguish and provoked the hostile response of Stalin and his cultural commissars.

For all the highly focused playing of the Pacifica members in these concerts, the lugubrious opening of the Eighth was a bit too soft and understated, lacking dynamic tension. The performance quickly found its footing, however—a brief moment when cellist Brandon Vamos’ endpin slipped out of position apart—and proved an overwhelmingly intense and emotional experience.

The Allegro molto was scary in its driving, nerve-wracked intensity, and first violinist Simin Ganatra’s long poised cantilena in the fourth movement conveyed a fragile solace to the music’s gaunt tragedy. The concluding Largo was almost unbearably moving, the nuanced, widely terraced dyanamics and deeply felt playing rising inexorably from a numbed desolation to achieve a small degree of catharsis.

While not exactly light-hearted frolics, the two quartets that flanked the performance of the Eighth are more optimistic or, at least, less tragic in expression.

The Quartet No. 6 certainly has moments of drama as with the sudden outburst and jabbing accents in the first movement. But this 1956 work is predominately optimistic and even cheerful, written at a happy time shortly after the composer’s marriage to his second wife Margarita (which would prove short-lived).

The lightly ironic opening movement leads to a relaxed, gamboling second section. The Lento turns darker with a pensive viola solo that develops into a ruminative fugue, highlighted Sunday by the players’ extraordinary precision and calibrated dynamics. The first violin role is prominent throughout and Ganatra’s gleaming acutely focused playing was beyond reproach. The works closes with an assertive if unsettling finale that slows down to the same and-that’s-the-end coda as the three preceding movements.

The Ninth Quartet dates from 1964 and is characteristic in its alternation of galloping energy with sudden abrupt moments of bleak introspection.

But in this work we also see Shostakovich’s quartets entering a new, darker phase. Similar to wind solos in his symphonies, in these later quartets often a solo string player embarks on an extended aria-like solo, set against a glacial stillness or quietly pulsing accompaniment like a wound from the other three players.

In the Ninth, it is the cellist who has the big moment and Vamos’s plaintive solo in the finale made an eloquent and expressive impact. The playing of Vamos and his colleagues throughout the Ninth Quartet was on the same magisterial level that regulars at these concerts have come to expect.

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