Pacifica Quartet at Wigmore Hall – 1

String Quartet in B flat, Op.18/6
String Quartet No.1 (Métamorphoses nocturnes)
String Quartet in A minor, Op.51/2

Pacifica Quartet [Simin Ganatra & Sibbi Bernhardsson (violins), Masumi Per Rostad (viola) & Brandon Vamos (cello)]

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 29 November, 2008
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

The Pacifica Quartet. Photograph: pacificaquartet.comThe Pacifica Quartet’s visits to Wigmore Hall have become a welcome fixture on the recital calendar. This recital was typically inventive as programming, in that it framed a ‘modern’ quartet that has only latterly come into its own with staples from the Austro-German repertoire.

The earlier of Beethoven’s B flat string quartets is an enticing synthesis of tradition and innovation. The Pacifica caught the Haydnesque wit of its opening Allegro – not least in its teasing uncertainty prior to the reprise – to perfection, then wisely refrained from milking the pathos of its unassuming slow movement. The scherzo is the first of its type that is unequivocally Beethovenian – here its brusque humour and rhythmic drive were both engagingly to the fore. As to the finale, the inward soulfulness of its ‘La Malinconia’ introduction formed a tight continuity with the carefree music that follows, the Pacifica mindful to increase momentum over the course of the movement so the final alternation of these opposing character-types brought a sure sense of inhibitions being confronted and overcome.

The inhibitions that Ligeti had to face during the period of his First String Quartet (1954) were as much conceptual as personal: how to sustain an individual idiom in the knowledge that such music was sure to remain unperformed in the Hungary of the immediate post-Stalin era. Although heard in Vienna just four years after its completion, only in the last decade has the piece received regular airings – rightly so, as whatever its indebtedness to Bartók (Ligeti himself acknowledged the importance of the Third and Fourth Quartets; the Second and Fifth are also evident but neither the First nor Sixth – deliberately, perhaps, in that these latter were the only two ‘available’ for performance at the time), the sheer personality which it invests in this subtle rethinking of the genre still compels admiration.

Although it unfolds as an unbroken 20-minute continuity, Ligeti’s First Quartet is derived from a pair of interrelated motifs that afford unity over a contrasted, even divisive sequence of vignettes that ranging from expressionistic anxiety, via parodistic humour, to musing resignation. Admirably as the Pacifica encompassed them, even more impressive was the degree to which these contrasts became more precipitous, climaxing in a fraught interplay out of which defeat was the only outcome. Those hearing it for the first time must surely have been provoked into making its acquaintance further.

If there was a work in this concert that needed special pleading, it is Brahms’s A minor Quartet. As with ‘the symphony’, the composer spent many years contemplating a genre so over-loaded with precedent before committing himself. Whether or not he completed and destroyed some 20 quartets in the interim, the first two of Brahms’s three quartets only emerged in 1873 after almost a decade of struggle. Even then, they were received with admiration rather than affection and can feel overly inhibited next to the earlier sextets or later quintets. Yet, unlike its edgy C minor companion or its discursive B flat successor, the A minor has a lyricism and warmth that need only a sympathetic performance in which to shine – the legacies of Beethoven and Schubert existing in perfect accord.

Such was certainly the case here, with the Pacifica maintaining a fine balance between the music’s formal ingenuity and its expressive poise. The opening movement was exemplary in this respect, with the wistful elegance of the Andante and whimsical humour of the ‘Quasi menuetto’ which follows no less well delineated. Its rhythmic dislocation here furthering rather than impeding overall momentum, the finale was hardly less perceptive – not least when rendered with such audible tonal refinement.

An uncommonly fine performance, then, to round off an excellent recital: as an encore, the Pacifica offered the ‘Cavatina’ from Beethoven’s ‘late’ B flat Quartet – inwardly intense yet without extraneous profundity, it made one look forward to a full account of a work that this fine ensemble has yet to give in London, though this will have to wait at least until after these musicians’ Elliott Carter marathon in February.

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