Pacifica Quartet transcendent in penultimate entry of revelatory Shostakovich cycle

Mon Feb 14, 2011 at 1:05 pm

By Dennis Polkow

The Pacifica Quartet performed four Shostakovich quartets Sunday in its ongoing cycle at Ganz Hall.

It’s hard to judge how much the transcendent experience enjoyed Sunday afternoon at Roosevelt University’s Ganz Hall was due to the rare opportunity to hear no less than four significant Shostakovich string quartets live in a single concert or the extraordinary quality of the astounding performances offered by the Pacifica Quartet.  Perhaps it was both.

This penultimate concert of the Pacifica’s complete Shostakovich cycle covered the quartets from the period 1960-68, which traverses the composer’s final stylistic transitional period from “middle” (Quartets 7, 10, 11) to “late” Shostakovich (Quartet 12).

Unlike the symphonies, all of the fifteen quartets were written after 1938 — too late for any of them to be considered “early” Shostakovich — and also were never subject to the same government scrutiny and even occasional censorship of his public pieces, allowing them to be far more personal and introspective.

Both quartets No. 7 and 11 were written as memorial works: No. 7, in f sharp minor, for Shostakovich’s first wife Nina Vazar, and No. 11 in f minor, for Vasily Shirinsky, second violinist of the Beethoven Quartet, which had premiered most of the previous quartets.

Quartet No. 7 is the briefest of this set and is characterized by the long unison notes played by the cello and viola, which the Pacifica played almost vibratoless, adding to the elegiac quality of the piece. There are moments of humor and irony here, such as the swaying, almost death-like waltz that appears in the finale, but which ultimately give way to tranquility before nothingness.

By contrast, Quartet No. 11 has a less personal quality to the music, a classic calm before the storm, which also calls for some cello and viola unison, although here played with expressive vibrato. The Pacifica’s string effects were immensely illuminating in revealing the heart of this music, including playing delightfully and deliberately just below pitch from glissandi, almost a crooning effect at times.

Quartet No. 10 in A-flat Major is more “classic” Shostakovich in that it contains an Allegretto furioso that is a match for intensity of any of his stormiest symphonic movements. It is easy to have this music spill over into excess, but as ferocious and brawling as the center of this work was in Pacifica’s performance, that only served to contrast more effectively with the tender, subtle and yearning quality of the Adagio that followed it.

Quartet No. 12 in D-flat Major marks a change in course that will remain in place for the remainder of Shostakovich’s quartets as well as for other of the last works of his “late” period before the composer’s death in 1975.

Twelve-tone or serial music had long fascinated Shostakovich, but the style was considered Western and decadent by the Soviet authorities and even banned.  As is true of so many things about Shostakovich and the turbulent events in the life of the Soviet Union, it is difficult to determine what, if any, effect this may have had on the music itself.

In the case of the Twelfth Quartet, it is clear we are a different sonic world from the previous quartets in that there is an air of aural confusion and chromaticism that at times paraphrases serialism. But at least in the case of this work, the gravitational pull of tonality ultimately has the last word in what becomes one of Shostakovich’s last heroic outbursts.

The Pacifica’s performance of this key work was revelatory on every level, daring to let the piece to meander and glory in its tonal ambiguity and yet allow it to teeter recklessly and excitedly on the brink before a thrilling and confident diatonic victory.

The Pacifica Quartet’s Shostakovich cycle will conclude at 2 and 7 p.m. Feb. 27 at Roosevelt University’s Ganz Hall.; 847-242-0775.

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