Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Pacifica Quartet offers a vivid sample of its "Soviet Experience" project in IU's Summer Festival

Pacifica Quartet is in residence at IU.
Dmitri Shostakovich's music often has commentators overworking their favorite dark adjectives, because the experience of hearing his scores plays upon the emotions so intensely. Metaphors of submission and resistance vie for supremacy as the works are weighed against the composer's lifelong strife with the Soviet regime.

It was no different for me Monday night in Indiana University's Auer Hall, when the Pacifica Quartet played two of the Shostakovich string quartets that they have recently staked a well-received claim to in a Cedille Records series called "The Soviet Experience." The performance of Quartets Nos. 2 and 9 (A major, op. 68, and E-flat major, op. 117, respectively) had all the high-profile anxiety, pathos and slightly desperate cheer characteristic of the Soviet Union's most durable composer.

The second quartet opened the program, with some extraneous anxiety and irritation provided by the buzz and hum of the hall's sound system. A technician fixed the problem after the Pacifica had conscientiously played op. 68 with its expected aplomb and left the stage. Tuning out electronic interference with difficulty enabled the listener to appreciate the composition's focus amid the kind of expressive variety that is a Shostakovich hallmark.

Particularly striking was the soulful, expansive playing of first violinist Simin Ganatra in the second movement, Recitative and Romance: Adagio. She dispatched the recitative with operatic flair, undergirded with soul-searching lyricism. The romance section had an abundance of the Pacifica's expressive and technical cohesiveness, with a smoothly managed frantic episode in the middle.

These qualities rose to a more sustained level in the third movement Waltz: Allegro. Dark, muted sonorities cleverly undercut the brisk panache of the theme. This kind of precarious emotional balance runs throughout the Shostakovich canon; the Pacifica are masters of it in the 15 string quartets.

Shostakovich's Russian folk roots, never far from the surface in his music, came to the fore with the viola theme Masumi Per Rostad stated to launch the finale, Theme With Variations. I loved the textural variety the Pacifica found in the course of this lengthy movement — the sort of expression that can try one's patience with Shostakovich because of its insistence on driving every point home. But then you get such a flash of brilliance as the Schubertian respite that emerges right after one of those hard-driving sections — a contrast this performance managed brilliantly.

The same sort of welcome interruption of fiery polemics occurs in the finale of Quartet No. 9, the sole work following intermission on Monday. After a spell of trenchant fugal marching, Brandon Vamos' recitativelike cello stopped everything, before a compact peroration put a stamp on the whole. It attained a glistening summit, as if lit by four spotlights, that drew a huge ovation from the packed hall, filled largely with IU String Academy students.

True to the "Soviet Experience" format of including a work by a Shostakovich contemporary in each of the two-disc Cedille releases, the Pacifica separated this concert's two Shostakovich quartets with a 1983 quartet by Alfred Schnittke, who idolized him. In brief oral program notes, second violinist Sibbi Bernhardsson explained the complex foundation of the work in motifs from Orlando di Lasso, Beethoven (in the "Grosse Fuge" and elsewhere in the late quartets) and Shostakovich himself (the signature "initials" motif of D, E-flat, C, B).

The performance brought out the best in the knotty, sometimes bleak Quartet No. 3. The clarity characteristic of Shostakovich was more elusive for Schnittke, who seems to have preferred obscuring the plainness underneath, as if to impose a spiritual discipline on players and listeners alike.

Notable in this performance was the shifting illusion of foreground and background, like a painter's perspective applied to the medium of time. There was also careful attention to the motivic statements and restatements that pervade the work, as well as to the recurrence of muscular, well-coordinated trilling. The only distracting element of the performance, especially when the rhythmic going got heavy, was Vamos' uninhibited foot-stamping.