Back at Mandel Hall, the Pacifica Quartet offers a mixed program

Sat Apr 09, 2011 at 10:33 pm

By Dennis Polkow

After a complete Shostakovich quartet cycle at Roosevelt University that proved one of the highlights of the 2010-11 season, the Pacifica Quartet returned to business as usual Friday night on the University of Chicago Presents series at Mandel Hall. 

Just as the group had done with Shostakovich, the Pacifica had offered a complete Beethoven cycle here a few years ago so their Beethoven is a known and sturdy commodity. The program began with the earliest work of the cycle, Op. 18, No. 1.

Beethoven came relatively late to the string quartet form, preferring genres early on that would not invite such obvious comparisons to Haydn and Mozart. When he did publish his first six quartets under Op. 18 in 1801, he put the best of the bunch at the beginning.

The Pacifica performance treated this piece largely as post-Classical rather than a pre-Romantic work, the more typical approach.  The expansive opening movement was buoyant and playful with transparent textures and the large-scale Adagio was faster and lighter than usual.

But the group chose to slightly Romanticize the last two shorter movements, the Scherzo, by bringing out its more radical elements, and by the finale, there was a skillful tightening of tension and release that effectively crowned the piece.    

The curiosity of the program was music of German composer Jörg Widmann, his String Quartet No. 3, the Hunting Quartet, which was given a spoken introduction by second violinist Sibbi Bernhardsson almost as long as the short piece itself. 

Widmann’s compact, single-movement quartets can be played together as a multi-movement work, or as stand-alone pieces of their own, each examining a particular form of the genre.  That is how the Pacifica chose to present the third quartet, a compressed history of the Scherzo form. 

The idea here is that the Scherzo began as a minuet dance later taking on a humorous quality before being transformed by Beethoven into more dramatic expression  and by symphonists such as Mahler and Shostakovich into a tragic movement. 

To reflect that, Widmann’s notion is to morph a dance-like bit of Schumann’s Papillons into a bitonal Ivesian romp via Penderecki-like glissandi and a classical bluegrass hootenanny of sorts. Widmann finally turns the Scherzo into a piece of performance art where the players attack the air, their instruments, buzz so quietly on their strings as to be almost inaudible, scream, etc.

Had Widmann’s quartet movements been played together as a whole, perhaps they might have made a stronger impression. As it was, this ten-minute tidbit came across as gimmicky and superficial, an idea that sounded more promising in the description than as the meager auditory experience it proved to be.                 

A perfunctory performance of the Dvořák American Quartet closed out the evening, a warhorse work that seemed to do little to fire up the ensemble, which was also marred by some intonation issues.

The highlight of the evening was actually the group’s encore of the pizzicato movement from the Bartók Fourth String Quartet which received all of the drive, excitement and musicianship that marked the Shostakovich cycle.  Perhaps a Bartók cycle as a follow-up?

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