Among the prominent string quartets well-represented on recordings, the Pacifica Quartet is also known through concerts (before the pandemic shut down most concert activity) to music-lovers in central Indiana. Pacifica Quartet records three new pieces by women.
Further evidence of its international reach, as it has adjusted to personnel changes after making its reputation, is "Contemporary Voices" (Cedille Records). New recordings of works by Shulamit Ran (a world premiere), Jennifer Higdon, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich make up the program. It's played convincingly by violinists Simin Ganatra and Austin Hartman; violist Mark Holloway, and cellist Brandon Vamos.
The fifth performer, who like the quartet is associated with the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, is Otis Murphy, brought in for Zwilich's Quintet for Alto Saxophone and String Quartet.
Zwilich's compositions have been championed here by John Nelson when he was music director of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, and she composed the commissioned work for the 8th Quadrennial International Violin Competition of Indianapolis. Murphy has been heard as an ISO guest artist and, with its original personnel, the Pacifica was engaged for the chamber-music round of the American Pianists' Association competition in 2018.
Zwilich's work fuses Murphy's mellifluous playing to the string-quartet genre, most notably in the fast second movement. Brisk "chase" music with heavy accents characterizes the movement, and the saxophone is very much a part of the texture.
The procedure is carried off well in the other movements, with a slight boost into a solo role for saxophone in the finale, whose pastoral opening gives way to blues-flavored music before the work comes to a thoughtful close. The opening movement is slow throughout, and charms the listener with a kind of ambivalent march that somewhat recalls Prokofiev. Zwilich, of course, by now has her own signature to apply to any such evocation.
Higdon's three-movement "Voices" lends its cryptic title to the whole release. The prolific composer is well-known — also somewhat in Indianapolis, where her violin concerto was premiered by Hilary Hahn with the ISO in 2009. Untypically aggressive at the start, "Voices" has a spiky first movement aptly titled "Blitz." The emphasis on abstract stage portraits of human expression carries through in "Soft Enlacing," whose quirky title signals the manner in which its restlessness hints strongly at desiring rest. To conclude the voice symbolism magically, the energy and commitment of "Grace" captures the way that quality comes to us with effort and a surge of emotional and intellectual focus in tandem, which I take to be the main import of the movement's climax.
Ran's "Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory" (String Quartet No. 3) memorializes Felix Nussbaum, a German-Jewish painter who died in the Holocaust. Ran learned about the artist while in residence at the American Academy in Rome nine years ago. She was touched by his commitment to his work all the while knowing he was doomed, along with so many others.
The work is startling, yet very much grounded in clear-eyed insights into Nussbaum's life and art. "That Which Happened," the first movement, passes its febrile agitation around the quartet. The sense of life insistent upon expression even amid regime-caused interruptions is intensely represented. In "Menace," the second movement, a whistling episode in unison with violin near the end caps music of wry humor and a sort of warped lyricism.
"If I perish — do not let my paintings die" is a quotation from the artist that functions as a title and governs the third movement, where persistence in the face of adversity seems to be represented by repeated plucked figures and wispy runs. "Shards, Memory" wraps up this riveting work with its wistfulness and insistence on tugging the mind toward a past that, as Nussbaum and millions of others were to learn, was not to yield to a bright, whole future but rather the shards of Kristallnacht and the ruin of European Jewish life that followed. Nussbaum died at Auschwitz in 1944.