Pacifica Quartet at Wigmore Hall – Shostakovich Cycle: 5 [String Quartets 11, 12 & 13]

String Quartet No.11 in F minor, Op.122
String Quartet No.12 in D flat, Op.133
String Quartet No.13 in B flat minor, Op.138

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

Reviewed by: Tully Potter

Reviewed: 28 March, 2012
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Pacifica QuartetThe relationship between Shostakovich and the Beethoven Quartet was among the most touching and rewarding in musical history. Although it was coincidental, in a way, that the ensemble was named after Beethoven, that composer’s shadow hung over much of the Shostakovich string quartet cycle – and no more so than in the cases of the last five. Perhaps I should explain the often unusual keys of these works: about halfway through the cycle, Shostakovich conceived the scheme of writing twenty-four quartets, one in each of the keys. Considering the state of his health – he suffered his first heart-attack on the evening of the Eleventh Quartet’s premiere in 1966 – we may be grateful he got as far as he did.

The Eleventh fulfils the same function in the cycle as Beethoven’s Opus 95 does in his: it heralds the final phase without quite being part of it. But there is no optimistic or genial ending – indeed, such a thing would be inappropriate. The work is the first of four dedicated to the individual original ‘Beethoveners’, a memorial to its dedicatee, second violinist Vassili Shirinsky, who died in 1965. The performance by the Pacifica Quartet was almost beyond praise, starting with Simin Ganatra’s beautifully shaped solo. Each of the seven linked movements led into the next in the most inevitable way, and each was finely characterised, especially the ‘Scherzo’ – the absolutely ideal – and the quirky, ironic ‘Humoresque’. The ‘Elegy’ was played with immense profundity.

The Twelfth, Shostakovich’s first string quartet to feature 12-note themes, also opened with a splendid solo, this time from Brandon Vamos. The work is dedicated to the Beethoven Quartet leader, the great Dmitri Tsyganov, who was challenged with some fearsome pizzicatos, delivered superbly by Ganatra. The slow section of the second of the two movements was again deeply moving and the vigorous ending was terrific.

Violists tend to blanch if you mention the Thirteenth Quartet, dedicated to the Vadim Borisovsky. His successor Feodor Druzhinin has explained that Borisovsky was messing about before the recording session for the Twelfth Quartet and practising passages from Kodály’s solo Bach arrangement, when he heard a familiar hoarse voice at his elbow. “Fedya, that’s a B flat, a B flat”, said Shostakovich, who proceeded to ask him various questions about how this high note could be reached. When he and his colleagues received the music of the Thirteenth Quartet, he recalled, “I saw that the Quartet ends with a long viola solo in the high register (known jokingly as the heights of eternal resin), and that the last note is that same B flat which is then passed on to the first and second violins to give the effect of a snowballing crescendo.”

This time it was the turn of Masumi Per Rostad to take the limelight, not only starting and virtually finishing the Thirteenth Quartet but having much exposure in the interim. Everyone took part with gusto in the central dance of this arch-shaped, compact piece. I am grateful to David Fanning for the hint that Shostakovich probably got the idea of having the players knock their bows percussively on their instruments from the 1952 Violin Sonata by his pupil Galina Ustvolskaya. These and other effects were nicely handled. I would not say that Rostad emerged completely unscathed from his trials, but he did pretty well. The performance hung together, right up to the final primal scream.

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