Pacifica Quartet at Wigmore Hall – Shostakovich Cycle: 4 [String Quartets 9 & 10]

String Quartet No.9 in E flat, Op.117
String Quartet No.10 in A flat, Op.118

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

Reviewed by: Tully Potter

Reviewed: 26 March, 2012
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Pacifica QuartetJust two works launched this second phase of the Pacifica Quartet’s Shostakovich cycle at Wigmore Hall, but they made a satisfying programme. After a failed first attempt at a Ninth String Quartet, the composer managed to complete both of them in the same year, 1964; and I am sure the programme annotator, David Fanning, is correct in surmising that Mieczysław Weinberg provided some of the stimulus. The Ninth and Tenth Quartets were prepared and premièred together (Feodor Druzhinin, who took over from his teacher Borisovsky in the Beethoven Quartet, has written amusingly about his baptism of fire, rehearsing them with Shostakovich sitting at his elbow).

Two factors contributing to the success of the Pacifica interpretations were the players’ judgment of tempo – especially vital in the Ninth, in Bartókian arch form with the only really fast music coming in the finale – and their ability to unleash contrasting colours. Second violinist Sigurbjörn Bernhardsson’s tone is almost more viola-like than that of the violist himself, Masumi Per Rostad; and both leader and cellist have very distinctive sounds.

Four of the five linked movements cast their shadows before them and the players were very adroit in bringing out these little intimations of what was to come. The two slow movements were mesmerising, the first and third ticked away with character and the finale with its counterpoint and contrasts in tempo was well sustained. Simin Ganatra kept her intonation pure, even when under pressure in the highest register.

During the interval I fell into conversation with a thoughtful lady who wondered what operas Shostakovich might have written, had his operatic career not been so cruelly quashed after the premiere of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. But it struck me, for the first time in such stark terms, that he put much of his dramatic skill into his string quartets. The Ninth has a number of dramatic recitative-like outbursts.

The Tenth Quartet was also magnificently interpreted, the first movement falling at once into the tempo giusto and the second (Allegretto furioso) immensely fierce without being neurotic – surely the right emphasis. The wonderful passacaglia was beautifully played, especially by Ganatra and Brandon Vamos; and the finale struck a fine balance between the quirky and the ironic, ending with aplomb.

I wondered if the Pacifica might play, as an encore, the single completed movement from the aborted version of the Ninth Quartet – by coincidence the Danel Quartet was due to give it its UK premiere in Manchester the day before this Wigmore recital. My wish was not fulfilled and the evening ended very early. But there was no feeling of incompleteness.

  • The Pacifica’s Shostakovich cycle continues on 28 & 29 March
  • Wigmore Hall

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