in: Reviews

March 1, 2010

Outstanding “Death and the Maiden” from Pacifica Quartet at Met Museum

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The Pacifica String Quartet, appointed last year as the successors to the Guarneri Quartet at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, played the second of their concerts Saturday night, February 27, in the 708-seat Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium. Built in 1954 and originally designed for lectures as well as music, it is much larger than the number of seats would suggest. It has a huge stage, built of gently curving wood surfaces reminiscent of the Kresge auditorium at MIT, built in 1955. The ceiling is at least 40 feet from the floor, and there is a deep balcony. The seats are absorptive. I sat in row G on the floor, about thirty feet from the performers.

The Quartet’s players are Simin Gantra and Sibbi Bernhardsson, violins, Masumi Per Rostad, viola, and Brandon Vamos, cello.

Accustomed to hearing the Pacifica in the Pickman auditorium at Longy, I was struck by how dwarfed they seemed by the wooden surfaces of the stage. The sound was a bit lost too, as their sound power was sucked up by the audience and the seats. But in row G the clarity was high, as the first reflections all came from distant surfaces. There was reverberation – about a 1.3 second reverberation time. Due to the large internal volume and amount of absorption the reverberant level was not excessive. The hall was nearly full of people, eager to hear what the Pacifica could do.

As usual with the Pacifica, the Haydn Quartet in D Major, Opus 64, No. 5, “The Lark,” was well played –particularly the last movement with its presto sixteenth notes — but not amazing. That distinction fell to the second and third pieces on the program: the Bartok String Quartet No. 4 and the Schubert Quartet in D Minor, D. 810, “Death of the Maiden.”

The Bartok, composed symmetrically in five sections, opened with a passage of violent dissonance, played both softly and with huge simultaneous down-bow chords of great ferocity. The second movement continued the dissonance, but with muted strings and equal intensity. The bows looked like brushes – so many hairs had broken. The middle movement glowed with quiet, gentle playing, toying many times with a lovely tonality. The fourth movement repeated the themes of the second, but without the mutes, and the strong down bows returned with passion in the fifth movement to complete the work. The clarity, precision, and exuberance of the playing held my full attention throughout the piece – exhausting and delightful.

The performance of the Schubert was the best I have heard of this popular piece, with surprising parallels to the Bartok. In the Pacifica’s performance the first movement of the Schubert – written just two years before his untimely death at the age of 31 – opened with similar strong, dissonant, down-bow chords similar to the Bartok. To me they seemed powerful protests to approaching death. These were followed by soft, gentle, melodic passages of great sweetness, perhaps reflecting the promises of peace and rest by Death in the “Death of the Maiden” lied. The argument — protest and resignation — continued through the movement.

The second movement was the gem of the evening. In the Pacifica’s hands it started with a unison expression of the melody of the “Death of the Maiden” lied, played pianissimo and without vibrato. The effect sent chills up my back. The opening of this movement was reminiscent of the third movement of the Bartok in its gentle intensity. The variations on the “Maiden” theme that followed were wonderful – showing the power of music to give delight even in difficult times. When the theme finally returned it was once again softly played, but this time with light vibrato. The difference in emotional effect was amazing. Instead of being frightening and foreboding, the theme was relaxed, melodic, calming.

The scherzo that followed was a fine diversion. The presto finale was described in the program notes as “opening with bleak chords,” but in the Pacifica’s performance it was anything but bleak. The whole movement was joyous, the flying sixteenths a triumphant affirmation of life in the presence of death.

The audience responded with a well deserved sustained ovation and many shouts of bravo. New York is not immune to the delight of the Pacifica’s music-making. Cambridge audiences will be able to hear them next at Longy on April 30th.

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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