IN: Reviews

Wolfgang and Benjie Come of Age


Pacifica Quartet (file photo)
Pacifica Quartet (file photo)

The Pacifica Quartet gave superb readings to two very personal watershed works at Sunday’s recital in Calderwood Hall. For Wolfgang Mozart, the first of the six quartets that he dedicated to Haydn, the G Major, K. 387, marked a decisive emancipation from his father’s tutelage following his friendship with Haydn and discovery of Haydn’s Op. 33 quartets. For Benjamin Britten the Quartet No. 1 in D Major, composed far from England in Escondido, California, in 1941, represented a major maturational step, both musically and psychologically, and in part homage to his recently-deceased mentor Frank Bridge.

It was clear from the start of Mozart’s Quartet in G Major, K.387, which opens in medias res, that this reading would be exceptional, unrushed and gorgeous, as the Pacifica showed balance, subtlety, a wide emotional range, clarity of line and wonderful interpersonal responsiveness. First violin Simin Ganatra guided with beautiful and sensitive phrasing that simultaneously remained firm and forceful. The exposition played out with strong contrasts, shifting quickly and seamlessly from dramatic to playful and back, and marked by exceptionally beautiful unisons. In the development section, dramatic feeling gathered that led to the emergence of an introspective angst; conviviality and dialogue inadvertently revealed an irreducible zone of privacy—all that each individual must hide, all that must remain unuttered.

Some sharply accented phrases in the first movement allegro prepared us nicely for the syncopated accents of the ensuing minuet, in which the question of the individual’s voice in the collective harmony seemed to be raised. The trio section took on a probing, operatic quality, featuring strong teamwork, dramatic unisons alternating with tremulous, tentative whimpering tinged with isolation.

The andante formed the emotional core of the work, the A section prayer-like, then returning as a hymn of thanksgiving. In between, the trio section climaxed in a launching of the first violin into ethereal space by the other players, starting with Brandon Ramos’s beautifully deep cello, like a voice from beyond the tomb, and ending with coloratura passagework sounding like golden evening light. The final molto allegro opened softly, airily, (much like the similar opening in the much later finale of the Jupiter symphony), the fughetto suddenly bursting out full strength with bold martellé phrasing. Sibbi Bernhardsson’s second violin supported with poignant subtlety. The second theme came as pure resolve but also as pure joy, with a well-earned expression of delight in the 1st violin, as individual voice and group harmony now harbored one another in vital new crosscurrents of complexity. The development began softly, building an air of mystery, leading to a dramatic convergence of all voices, followed by a pause and the abbreviated recapitulation, only to finish with one last bit of Haydenesque mischief, the false cadence and final end phrase beautifully executed.

Like Mozart, Britten had been appreciated and encouraged from a young age for his outstanding musical talent. He had a great deal on his mind when he received the commission for his first official string quartet from Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge in the summer of 1941. He was in self-exile from his homeland as a pacifist during World War II. Urged to immerse himself into a Bohemian lifestyle by W.H. Auden, he was coming to terms with his feelings for Peter Pears while being vilified in the English press for deserting England during her time of need. He fled with Pears from Brooklyn Heights to Escondido, California, composing the quartet in just one month, in a tool shed. The first quartet seems to reflect, at least to some degree, Britten’s working through of what he himself called his “perplexities” in order to shore up a firm inner voice before returning home to England.

Pacifica’s performance moved, excited and exhilarated. The opening movement brought out the stratospheric beauty of the first theme as well as the rambunctiousness of the second, evoking the imperious impulses of the flesh that fight against the desire to remain angelic, chaste, aloof, safe. The second movement allegro conveyed the excitement of danger. The vivdly conveyed experimentalism and dérapage  evoked not just city lights and vulgarity in their glorious profane harvest of uncertainty, but also disclosed that such cacophonic disorder could not be the true home of Benjie’s heart, however much Wystan Hugh might urge him “to suffer and make others suffer” so as to grow in artistic depth. The true home, the revelation, came with the third movement Andante calmo. It soared upward only to collapse (reminiscent of Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night) and the 1st violin called out for help in the vast expanse of the night, alone with Alone, afraid and prepared for solitude. Unforeseen and unhoped-for, the answer came as a gift from on high—Yes! There is another.” Expressed in the cello, then in Masumi Per Rostad’s profoundly moving viola (Bridge’s very instrument and symbolic of Pears’ voice), the emotional core turned into a redemption of the flesh through love, climbing now to unexpected heights of serenity.

The final movement, molto vivace, unfolded under the sign of reciprocity and mutual sharing in embracing a great adventure with confidence and resolve. Most remarkable was the eloquence of the pizzicato sections and the nimble Mozartean shifts from polyphony to monophony and back, evoking the miracle of daily life with its cargo of happiness and chores, ritual objects and divine surprises. Pacifica brought out the “heaven in ordinarie” that is discovered and affirmed so powerfully by Britten in this molto vivace affirmation of love, home, music and peace.

Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest,
The Milkie way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bels beyond the starres heard, the souls bloud,
The land of spices; something understood.

Leon Golub is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge and has been a lover of classical music for over 50 years.

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