Pacifica Quartet at Wigmore Hall – Shostakovich Cycle: 1 [String Quartets 1, 2 & 3]

String Quartet No.1 in C, Op.49
String Quartet No 2 in A, Op.68
String Quartet No.3 in F, Op.73

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

Reviewed by: Tully Potter

Reviewed: 10 October, 2011
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Pacifica QuartetThe Pacifica Quartet is a magnificent ensemble. This was my first hearing of these players in a concert but I had already admired their recorded Mendelssohn – and after this first recital in its Wigmore Hall Shostakovich cycle I rate these musicians as the best foursome to come out of America in many a year. Each Pacifica player can stand up to any amount of scrutiny. The middle ground of the group’s sonority is especially interesting because both the second violinist and the cellist can play with a viola-like plangency. As the violist himself has a particularly arresting tone, the result is a rainbow of colours.

Shostakovich’s First String Quartet begins as if following on from Tchaikovsky’s popular First. The Pacifica captured that mood exactly. The work is quite simply laid out, with one amazingly disarming melody in the muted third movement; and it even has a Borisovsky-style viola solo ‘before the fact’ – the composer did not meet Messrs Tsyganov, Borisovsky and the Shirinsky brothers, who made up the Beethoven Quartet, until after the Leningrad-based Glazunov Quartet had given the 1938 première. Thereafter every quartet was written for the Beethoven group.

How ‘Jewish’ is the Second String Quartet of 1944? Not at all, in my opinion, which I base on the two recordings made by the Beethoven Quartet (Melodiya and Supraphon). Tsyganov plays the ‘Recitative and Romance’ of the second movement completely straight; and as Shostakovich put the ‘Beethoveners’ through the wringer when preparing his quartets, he would certainly have asked for Jewish inflections if he had wanted them. Simin Ganatra’s performance, while superbly played, had more than a suggestion of the Jewish about it, even if it did not go as far as the effects I have heard from Eugene Drucker of the Emerson Quartet. Perhaps this is an American idea. Apart from this aberration, as I see it, the Pacifica performance was replete with the required precision, shading and intensity, with an excellent range of dynamics. It will be interesting to see how these players approach the Fourth String Quartet, which really does incorporate Jewish folk elements.

Shostakovich never wrote a greater quartet than the Third, although he rose to the same level in a number of its successors. It makes great demands on an ensemble’s rhythmic resources, and I recall a performance by the Smetana Quartet which almost lifted one out of one’s seat with its irresistible vim. The Pacifica did not quite reach those exalted heights, but the rhythms, especially in the first two movements and the finale, were superb – it always helps to have a cellist like Brandon Vamos who is always spot-on the beat. The more-savage rhythms of the third movement were fully realised and the slow fourth was intensely profound. The work’s tragic quiet ending was memorable and thankfully no-one applauded until after the musicians had relaxed.

The only Pacifica habit which is rather out of keeping is the brandishing of bows in mid-air at the end of a fast movement. I cannot think that it adds anything to the brio of the performance and it seems alien to chamber-music ethos. Finally, I would like to dedicate this review to the memory of the poet Alex Smith, who died a few hours before the concert. We often discussed Shostakovich’s string quartets and he would have enjoyed the Pacifica’s beautifully prepared interpretations.

  • The Pacifica’s Shostakovich cycle continues on 13 & 14 October 2011
  • Wigmore Hall

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