Having recently attained majority, the (ca.) 21-year-old Pacifica Quartet can no longer call itself “one of the finest quartets of the younger generation,” yet they are no less exciting as grownups than in earlier days when they were cited for smokin’ interpretations as minors. Any ensemble this established, with such little turnover, though, must lack sharp elbows; consequently, polish generally supersedes unpredictability in their current arsenal. Their play now reflects a burnish of fine cigars, though they had never particularly rolled-their-own grittiness. In the dry but clear confines of the Gardner cube Sunday afternoon, the foursome earned our serious respect for focus and unanimity.
The program of Britten and Mozart begins a two-year commitment to the Gardner, and they are welcome local returnees. Since their founding in 1994 they have hardly been strangers to Boston. Last year the Celebrity Series presented them, and few can forget their four-year series of concerts and masterclasses at Longy.
Mozart’s Quartet in F Major, K.590, reintroduced the players to the attentive full house with projection that would have exploded in a more resonant hall. After an outgoing but conventional Allegro Moderato, the master’s Andante tells an ancient woeful tale redolent of the bittersweet consolations of Le Nozze di Figaro. Perhaps it could have wept and moved more in this outing; instead it came across as a slightly musty minuet, sounding more in three than in six. The titular Minuet possessed dramatic, almost angry sway. The execution of the serpentine, sinewy introduction in the final movement erased all interpretative doubts: fugal exchanges never sounded academic—clear, energetic and smooth, they were, nearly sublime. The minor variation unfolded with grace, and the peroration took no prisoners.
From where we were sitting, the backs of the two violinists blocked direct tone, so first violinist Simin Ganatra’s tendency to brighten came across as sharpening. The warmer tones of cellist Brandon Vamos and violist Masumi Per Rostad worked better in the space, managing to glow at many times. Even though one yearned for a bit of grit, the performance succeeded through logic and seriousness.
Britten’s Second Quartet constitutes a perfect vehicle for the Pacifica. The work is more unbuttoned than much of the composer’s work, thankfully, and the signature noodlings come across as whole-grained rather than refined and enriched. The first movement’s weather was partly cloudy with occasional outburst: slides and harmonics alternated with slash and burn; sunny snippets presaged storms. The foursome’s high polish kept these mutabilities in sharp focus. They made the most of the muted fantasy that Britten concocted in the Vivace, and our anticipation remained high as we prepared to have our lapels grabbed by the Chaconne. No stiff-upper-lipped Brits or pastoralists were onstage now, much less Britten the pacifist; and music and execution were at once impressive and satisfying, even if hardly throbbing on the sleeve. Throughout the over 15-minute last movement, seamless transitions into and out of the solos impressed, the cellist’s pizzicatos rivaled a harp, and the two violins duetted as one. From this topflight performance, the divine wind would have scattered any armada of carping critics.