Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Pacifica Quartet adds to a distinguished exploration of "The Soviet Experience"

Emotional highs and lows throughout the Shostakovich string quartets tend to have the lapel-grabbing immediacy of late Beethoven, unique in the distinguished literature for the combination of two violins, viola and cello.

Whatever banalities the Soviet composer may have committed in his more "public" works, in the string quartets (and some of the other chamber music) he laid his heart bare, and usually brought forth much more than raw feeling.

In this two-disc set, the Pacifica Quartet marks the third volume of its "Soviet Experience" series on Cedille Records.  This is a powerful follow-up to its predecessors, and is especially notable for the restraint and control evident as the quartet renders the composer's more mysterious inspirations.

That side of Shostakovich,  which sometimes seems to show up as an illusory calm that is more wish-fulfillment than settling in, is represented by this particular set.   Especially telling is the Pacifica's performance of Quartet no. 11 in F minor, op. 122,  a setting of seven rough-cut jewels, close neighbors on a compact (less than 18 minutes) cushion of superlative string-quartet playing.

The tentative but promising introductory first movement gives way to an exhibition of guarded humor in the Scherzo, dashed by the explosive opening of "Recitative-Adagio," the third movement. In
the fourth, we hear some of the uncanny unity the Pacifica can draw out of disparate material — racing versus stately — overlaid skillfully.

The Pacifica Quartet is in residence at IU.
"Humoresque" untangles the different directions undertaken by the previous movement, making the second violin play the role of an obsessive-compulsive cuckoo, an understated touch of mordant wit. None too soon, an expansive Adagio allows at last for a sustained mood, but it's one of those unsettling elegies (even so named at the head of the movement) that seemed to come all too readily from Shosakovich's muse. As an interpretive triumph, the finale stands out for the sustained introspection, approaching bleakness, that the Pacifica has under exquisite control up through the final bar.

Violinists Simin Ganatra and Sibbi Bernhardsson, violist Masumi Per Rostad and cellist Brandon Vamos, now fortunately in residence at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music, make a substantial case for the centrality of these works. They don't emphasize the vulnerability so characteristic of Shostakovich, which can also be an appealing tack (see the Fitzwilliam Quartet's recordings of a couple of decades back, for instance). But there is an admirably wider expressive palette in this music, to which the Pacifica gives full measure.

Also on this disc are three Shostakovich quartets that don't deserve to be given short shrift. But I would call special attention to the contrast of furious energy and profound near-stasis  in the middle movements of Quartet No. 10 in A-flat, op. 118.

The only relatively flawed piece is the bottom-heavy Quartet No. 12 in D-flat, op. 133, a two-movement form resting on a huge concluding Allegretto. The Pacifica finds sufficient variety in it, but can't quite salvage the work as justifying such an uninterrupted, overstuffed valise of a finale.

The second disc is filled out with a forceful, self-confident composition that belies its composer's difficult life in the Soviet Union: Mieczyslaw Weinberg's String Quartet No. 6 in E minor, op. 35. Though the work (not to mention the composer) was previously unknown to me, the Pacifica's performance of it here argues for its consideration for a foothold in the standard 20th-century string-quartet repertoire.