in: Reviews

January 28, 2010

Connections, Contrasts, and States of Mind


As part of their residency as Visiting Artists in Chamber Music at Longy, the Pacifica Quartet on January 25 presented a quartet by Jennifer Higdon, sandwiched between one of Beethoven’s earliest and one of his last string quartets. The performances were stunning. The Pacifica manages to give each note both dynamic and rhythmic expression, and they do it with complete unanimity. They are a visually engaging group—it is often easy to tell from their faces and bodies the emotions they are trying to express. But their many recordings show you don’t need to see them to hear their unique style. The power of their playing is in the sound.

The players are Simin Ganatra, violin, Sibbi Bernardsson, violin, Masumi Per Rostad, viola, and Brandon Vamos, cello.

For the first half of the concert I was fortunate to get a seat in the center of the third row, where the sound was sufficiently clear that I could separate nearly all the notes from one another, and usually could tell which instrument had played it by the direction of the sound. The clarity was absolutely gripping.  It was impossible not to concentrate on both the phrasing and the details of the music being played. As an experiment I traded to a seat one row back and further to the side for the Beethoven String Quartet Op.  130. The sound—although good—was noticeably less engaging. It was possible for me to relax and think about the many connections between the pieces. Perhaps a good thing—but it lacked the excitement of the closer seat.

The similarities between the pieces were striking. All of them were concerned with voices—the musical language and the message of the composers. The Beethoven String Quartet Op. 18, No. 6 starts with an allegro reminiscent of the best of Haydn or Mozart, but with some twists unique to Beethoven. The Pacifica’s playing increased the intensity of the movement, giving the forward motion of an express train while keeping the tempo precise. The next movement was quite different—reflective, with pauses of great meaning. The last movement was the most moving, ’La Malinconia,’ an adagio of anguishingly quiet beauty. It started with a series of unisons in the lower strings—The Pacifica played them without vibrato and in perfect intonation. The effect was chilling, almost frightening, a hint of the late Beethoven we were to hear. Slow melodic passages followed, full of anguish. Eventually the somber mood passed, to be replaced by a reprise of the Viennese ballroom. Life goes on. But the somber mood returned before the end. Beethoven confided to a friend shortly after the piece was published that he had been despondent for two years over his rapidly disappearing hearing. But Beethoven’s musical voice was rapidly growing.

Voices, by Jennifer Higdon, is in three movements, titled “Blitz,” “Soft Enlacing,” and “Grace.” Higdon’s musical language is unique. Like Beethoven, Higdon uses pauses to great effect. Like Scriabin, she uses unusual sound and harmony to express inner states of mind. “Blitz” opened with the sound of air-raid sirens, incoming artillery, fingernails on a blackboard. I don’t have any idea of how it was scored, or how the Pacifica played it, but it was truly frightening. That mood passed, to be replaced by interleaving lines of sometimes tonal, sometimes atonal, phrases, building slowly to more coherence and more tonality before the start of the last movement.  “Grace” started with ostinato cello double-stops of open fourths, reminiscent of the unisons of Beethoven. The effect was vaguely tonal and disturbing. Gradually the other strings enter. Suddenly we were in the land of Samuel Barber—tonal harmony and recognizable melodies—a huge contrast to the other movements, and very moving. Underneath the vibrato-less cello kept going, cutting into the sweetness of the upper strings. All together a wonderful piece—my introduction to a great composer—and a tribute to the skill of the Pacifica. Playing an unfamiliar piece in an unusual musical language requires that every note be in the right place, and with the right nuance. Otherwise the music becomes just notes—the soul, the meaning, is lost. The Pacifica delivers this kind of playing—the heart is heard, and felt.

Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 130 was played here with its original last movement, the Grosse Fugue, Op. 133. The language of the quartet is pure Beethoven—none of the Viennese lightness of the Op.18 remains. The opening adagio sets the mood as very serious. The following movements lighten the tone somewhat—but the fifth movement, the Cavatina adagio, takes us right back to the final movement of Op.18. Once again the long unisons appear, this time with all the instruments playing perfectly together, and without vibrato. Gradually melodies and harmonies arrive, but the tone is bleak. I was transfixed by the music and the playing. The Grosse Fugue that follows is one of the most modern of Beethoven’s works, and was played with passionate ferocity by the Pacifica. Often atonal, the piece is held together by the fugal structure. Bach on steroids. But in the middle of all the fury, sudden passages of quiet, once again played without vibrato. The playing was over the top—but the piece is over the top.

Look forward to the Pacifica’s return in May. Go early. Get a seat up close.

David Griesinger is a Harvard-trained physicist who is eminent in the field of sound and music. His website is here.

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