This review constitutes no farewell to the Pacifica Quartet, which returned to Maverick Concerts yesterday but rather to the 2016 season—gratifying in general and particularly for its many excellent string quartet performances.
Pacifica Quartet seem to be specialists in modern music, in part because of the ensemble’s recordings of Quartets by Shostakovich (a particularly interesting set which included a few quartets by his contemporaries) and by Elliot Carter. But the ensemble began its Maverick concert with a knowing, expert, and effective performance of Mozart’s Quartet in D Minor, K. 421. The opening Allegro, with its exposition repeat gratifyingly present, was played at a surprisingly moderate tempo which worked quite well. The rubato and wide dynamic range seemed a bit unusual for Mozart but still appropriate enough. The group’s ensemble is simply awesome, and it’s pleasure to hear such a strong viola. I thought maybe the dynamics in the finale were a bit exaggerated, but the strong accents in the Menuetto worked just fine.
Shulamit Ran composed her String Quartet No. 3, “Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory” in 2014. The title suggests potential problems, since we aren’t usually given such direct hints as to the emotional content of a piece of music. This work, written for the ensemble, was inspired by the art and life of Felix Nussbaum, a German Jewish painter who was murdered in the Holocaust. I’d say it was a little too inspired by Nussbaum. Having read the program notes, and heard violist Masumi Per Rostad’s spoken introduction, I decided I’d try to listen to the music alone and keep outside associations away. But it didn’t work.
The music is generally intriguing, and it adheres pretty closely to its mode of frequent interruption. But it is so obviously pictorial that much of the time it sounds like the score to an unseen film. Having the musicians stamp in unison was obviously meant to convey something specific but for someone trying to concentrate on the musical values it was a very distracting episode. The mournful finale, consistent in tone, was the most musically satisfying and effective movement. For the rest of the piece, I think Ran may be trying to get the music to do too much. Perhaps it would be more effective if used to accompany projections of Nussbaum’s work and of concentration camp scenes. The performance was obviously dedicated and adept.
If the dynamics seemed a bit exaggerated at moments in Mozart, such expression felt entirely appropriate for a powerful performance of Beethoven’s Quartet No. 15, in A Minor, Op. 132. This piece invites wide dynamics and the Pacifica Quartet certainly supplied them, along with very strong rhythmic emphasis where it was needed. The extraordinary central movement, from which the “Holy Song of Thanks” label (Beethoven’s own) is now used for the whole quartet, was highly affecting, and I don’t recall those massive chords sounding so much like an organ before. The very strong accents in the finale just seemed strong, not at all excessive. This brought a wonderfully appropriate conclusion to the season.