Pacifica Quartet explores Baroque bonds at UC Presents’ Britten Festival

Tue Oct 08, 2013 at 9:56 am

By Dennis Polkow

The Pacifica Quartet performed music of Britten and Beethoven Sunday afternoon at the Logan Center.
The Pacifica Quartet performed music of Britten and Beethoven Sunday afternoon at the Logan Center.

With the Jupiter Quartet having performed the first and last of Benjamin Britten’s string quartets at the inaugural concert of the five-week University of Chicago Presents Britten Festival Friday night, it fell to the Pacifica Quartet to complete the cycle by traversing Britten’s String Quartet No. 2 in C Major Sunday afternoon at the Logan Center.

Like String Quartet No. 1, No. 2 is a young work from the 1940s. It was written after Britten’s return to England — he had left for America in 1939 because of his pacifist stance — in the wake of the 1945 London success of Peter Grimes, in commemoration of the 250th anniversary of Henry Purcell’s death in 1695.

The work’s opening movement sets the piece up in a compact, almost modernist fashion with its unfolding chromaticism. The Pacifica offered a finely nuanced and introspective interpretation, which emphasized its almost minimalist qualities. The middle movement Vivace is a short, brisk scherzo with a propulsive ostinato that gives little hint of the finale to come.

The closing section is Britten’s homage to Purcell, a contemporary Chacony, as Britten called it, or chaconne, with innovative variations that the Pacifica really sank their teeth into, complete with spirited cadenzas for violin, cello and viola. The 17th century-meets-20th century romp goes all out before a battle of tonalities at the end, which, being a nod to Purcell, ultimately give way to the tonic.

To pair Britten’s morphing of Baroque music with a performance of Beethoven’s Quartet No. 13 in B-flat Major, Op. 130 with its original Grosse Fuge finale was an inspired idea.

Beethoven’s massive double fugue — a favorite form of the Baroque era — left its original hearers so bewildered that Beethoven was persuaded to replace the finale with a more conventional movement and publish the Grosse Fuge separately.

Like the Chacony finale of Britten’s Second Quartet, the Grosse Fuge uses an old and conventional form from another era to say something new. It is particularly revealing to hear it within the musical context that Beethoven intended rather than as a stand-alone piece.

The Cavatina movement, beautiful as it is, takes on new meaning as the set-up for the Grosse Fuge, a perfect contrast, the former being as tranquil as the latter is ferocious. Both movements were given a tour de force performance by the remarkable Pacifica Quartet.

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