Pacifica Quartet at Wigmore Hall – Shostakovich Cycle: 3 [String Quartets 7 & 8 and Piano Quintet with Menahem Pressler]

String Quartet No.7 in F sharp minor, Op.108
String Quartet No.8 in C minor, Op.110
Piano Quintet in G minor, Op.57

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

Menahem Pressler (piano)

Reviewed by: Tully Potter

Reviewed: 14 October, 2011
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

As we reach the halfway point in this Shostakovich cycle, I have to say that so far it has been the most rewarding in my experience. The dedication of the Pacifica Quartet has been matched by a splendid level of accomplishment, and I am impatient to hear what the foursome can make of the equally varied final seven quartets.

Pacifica QuartetThe Seventh Quartet of 1960, dedicated to the memory of the composer’s first wife Nina who had died six years earlier, packs a great deal of meaning into a short space of time and needs fierce concentration from the players. This it received. The central Lento was the highlight, replete with beautiful tone, but the rhythmic control shown in the outer movements was also impressive. Nothing seemed mechanical, even though the piece had clearly been carefully prepared.

I have heard many first-rate accounts of the masterpiece that is the Eighth Quartet, so I shall content myself with saying that the Pacifica had me virtually on the edge of my seat throughout. The purport of the playing truly matched the tragedy of the work and the performance, already excellent at the start, seemed to dig deeper with each successive movement. I should add ‘humility’ to describe the approach to the two final Largo movements. Time seemed to stand still.

I must nail my colours to the mast and say that I have always believed the Eighth Quartet has as much to do with the destruction of Dresden, and the fight against Hitler, as with Shostakovich’s misery under Soviet Communism. In his programme note David Fanning says the Borodin Quartet may have first suggested that the sound-effects in the fourth movement represented the drone of bombers and the explosion of bombs. Well, I heard those things in the music the first time I experienced it, back in the 1960s, and I think they are blatantly obvious. Granted that all Shostakovich’s music has an inner landscape which can be difficult to map, I think we can sometimes overcomplicate our reactions. The Eighth Quartet is an undeniably tragic response to tragic events and the composer’s public grief is not invalidated if he is also reflecting private grief.

The second half of the evening belonged to Menahem Pressler. The performance of Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet was rather slow and serious, no doubt accommodating the wishes of the 87-year-old pianist. If he no longer moves about the keyboard with quite the élan of yore, like Horszowski of blessed memory he still produces a beautiful tone from the piano. I was not sure whether the Pacifica players’ occasional resorting to senza vibrato was helpful, but there were many lovely things in the five movements. My feeling is that Shostakovich intended to convey at least some levity: after all, his stated intention in writing the Piano Quintet was to tour with his friends in the Beethoven Quartet, and in the decade between his two recordings with them, he speeded up his interpretation. But I do not wish to carp; and the Andante of Brahms’s Piano Quintet, played as an encore, was very beautiful.

Afterwards Pressler was presented with the Wigmore Medal by the Hall’s director John Gilhooly. It was a moment for all of us to reflect on how much this wonderful musician has given us over the years. I have been attending his concerts for virtually half-a-century and many of his recordings have attained hallowed status. Speaking of which, the Pacifica Quartet has recorded Shostakovich’s Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Quartets for the Cedille label, along with the best known of Miaskovsky’s quartets, the Thirteenth. I have not yet heard the two-disc set (CDR 90000 127) – Volume One of a series devoted to Shostakovich and his Soviet contemporaries – but I look forward to doing so.

  • The Pacifica’s Shostakovich cycle at Wigmore Hall will be completed on 26, 28 & 29 March 2012
  • Wigmore Hall

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