IN: Reviews

Non-Pacific Quartet


Named for geography (it was founded in California), not temperament, the 25-year-old Pacifica Quartet has recorded and performed the complete string quartets of Shostakovich and Carter, hardly the most pacific music one could find. It has also recorded the complete quartets of Mendelssohn, and it brought the Quartet No. 3, in D, Op. 44, No. 1 to the Maverick on Sunday.

The ensemble’s precision (this seems to be one of those quartets which aims to sound like a single instrument) and technical finish are awesome. Its Mendelssohn was compelling. At the same time, the performance sometimes felt a bit aggressive for Mendelssohn, especially in the first movement, since Mendelssohn’s quartets (except for the tragic Op. 80) are generally sunnier than what we heard here. The streamlined approach to the finale was unconventional, but not excessive. This stimulating performance left me thinking.

After hearing the Pacifica’s performance of Elliot Carter’s String Quartet No. 2, I have decided that I don’t want to listen to any recordings of that music, not even theirs. This composition, which made Carter’s reputation and won his first Pulitzer Prize, is very challenging to listen to, certainly by design. Rather than use the traditional style of development, Carter has written an ongoing conversation among the four instruments which doesn’t cohere until the very end. Its nine sections, except for the cadenzas for solo instruments, are almost impossible to discern. Listening to this music at home, even on a good stereo, poses a daunting challenge, and my refresher listen the week before the concert (to the Composers Quartet, in a composer-supervised recording) left me as puzzled as the first time I heard it. In concert, though, the spatial separation of the instruments (specified by the composer) and the visual cues of musicians at work somewhat clarify things. While the score is full of clashes and complexity, the individual passages played by each instrument are usually not very complex at all. That definitely helps a listener. While this isn’t exactly entertaining music, it’s engaging to hear live. I wouldn’t dare to evaluate the performance, but I presume it was excellent.

Pacifica Quartet (Lisa-Marie Mazzucco photo)

Of course the foursome has performed all of endlessly fascinating Beethoven’s quartets. This concert concluded with No. 9, in C Major, Op. 59, No. 3, the last of the “Razumovskys.” (The music loving count requested that each include Russian themes.) The Pacifica Quartet’s take gave complete satisfaction. They vividly projected the drama throughout. Dynamics often exploded, and the sforzandi shocked as intended. The only annoyance was a tendency in the first three movements to follow some phrases with minute pauses, a tactic I hadn’t heard before. The thrilling traversal of the finale, which remained clear even at the very fast tempo, swept away any reservations.

Leslie Gerber, who lives in Woodstock, New York, has been reviewing professionally since 1966, for such venues as Performance Today, Fanfare, and He also publishes the Parnassus Records label.

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  1. Thank you, Mr. Gerber, for an insightful review of what sounds like a fine concert.

    My only quibble is when you say “the performance sometimes felt a bit aggressive for Mendelssohn.” There are times, I think, especially in the sturm and drang utterances that so wonderfully populate the master’s work that seem to cry out for an aggressive, if not unhinged, approach. In the fifty years of my recreational galumphing through those quartets, I have often approached the middle voices with that attitude. Thankfully, the Performance Practice Police have not yet come knocking at my door.

    Interestingly, the part of this review that may be the most impressive is that devoted to the Carter; music that, if I’m reading him correctly, Mr. Gerber admits he is unfamiliar with and does not enjoy overmuch. Is it possible that his seemingly fraught relationship to the piece is what gives his evaluation of it special weight and value? His insights about it are honest, unburdened by performance history baggage, and welcomely unpretentious. What he says about this music makes me want to broach with my quartet buddies that we give the piece a good try.

    A common notion is that the best music reviewers are good because they knew so much about the music and performance history of the stuff they are writing about. Recently a learned and eloquent commentator in another “thread” on this page pointed out three goals to aspire to in critiquing a performance:

    *hold an array of ideas how a piece of music might sound in performance
    • engage fully with the unique performance at hand
    • remain open to the possibility that one’s array of ideas may well be altered and perhaps expanded by it, just as it has in the past by any great performance.

    It is the third of those advantages that has the most resonance with me.

    There are times when when it’s time to sing a new song.

    Comment by Jonathan Brodie — August 28, 2019 at 11:24 am

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