Pacifica Quartet brings fervor and drama to two Czech masterpieces

Tue May 14, 2013 at 5:00 pm

By Gerald Fisher

The Pacifica Quartet performed music of Smetana, Janacek and Beethoven Sunday at the Logan Center for the Arts.

Just two days after taking part in a performance of new music for the University of Chicago’s Contempo series, the resourceful Pacifica Quartet was back on campus Sunday afternoon at the Logan Arts Center with an ambitious program of three stylistically varied but mainstream classical masterpieces. Violinist Sibbi Bernhardsson rejoined colleagues violinist Simin Ganatra, violist Masumi Per Rostad and cellist Brandon Vamos for quartets by Smetana, Janacek and Beethoven.

Smetana’s First String Quartet is classically concise but highly emotive. Autobiography flows from every section. The composer’s own description is readily available and the onset of his deafness certainly resonates on hearing the piercing sustained harmonic E on the violin in the last movement’s dramatic conclusion.

The Pacifica caught the drama from the opening statement and displayed fine accord throughout the first movement, which came to a sensitive, hushed finale. The second movement gave plenty of opportunity for solo work from each instrumentalist and the artists provided good-natured cello murmurings underpinning the upper strings’ quasi-polka tunes. The cello is a main actor in the third movement too, as things turn romantic, though again each instrument has its moments. The Pacifica was on form individually and together and the somber conclusion was touchingly rendered.

Janacek’s musical program for his Second Quartet is also easily found in the intimate letters that he wrote to the youthful object of his yearnings. Drama and emotional extravagance are to the fore in this music and formal structure is mostly absent. The Pacifica excel at drama, and the work’s emotional trajectory was clear. Many stylistic felicities flashed by and the quartet handled the odd, quirky dance rhythms and darkly romantic harmonies with technical assurance.

Even without much Slavic flavor to their sound, the playing throughout was committed and energetic and the performance felt clsoe to definitive  as did that of the Smetana. The Pacifica members crafted a memorable pairing of these two related but stylistically contrasting works.

After the intermission, Beethoven’s last quartet felt almost uncharacteristically restrained compared to all the drama in the Czech works. The heart of Op. 135 is to be found in the slow third movement which is deceptively simple and exposes the artists to a high degree of scrutiny. The Pacifica was tonally secure for the most part but the movement didn’t quite hold together as might have been desired. The contrasts in the final movement were well handled however as declamations emerged out of darkness to be followed by propulsive interactions which these talented musicians brought to a quick and stylish conclusion.

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