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.
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 Amazon.com. He also publishes the Parnassus Records label.