Pacifica Quartet at Wigmore Hall – Shostakovich Cycle: 6 [String Quartets 14 & 15]

String Quartet No.14 in F sharp, Op.142
String Quartet No.15 in E flat minor, Op.144

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

Reviewed by: Tully Potter

Reviewed: 29 March, 2012
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Pacifica QuartetThe late quartets of Beethoven and Shostakovich are haunted by intimations of mortality, but that does not mean – and here I disagree radically with the Wigmore Hall programme annotator David Fanning – that they are depressing. As the Fifteenth Quartet came to its quiet close, I felt, as I always do, that the mortally ill Shostakovich had come to terms with the fact that life would carry on after he had gone.

First we had the Fourteenth, dedicated to the Beethoven Quartet cellist Sergei Shirinsky and full of challenges for Brandon Vamos. He duly produced some sonorous solos, but the performance was also notable for the balance among the four voices. The somewhat equivocal first movement was nicely paced, with the tempo changes made inevitable; the central Adagio had noble moments, especially from first violin and cello; and the finale brought more exposure for Vamos – Shostakovich not only uses the musical notes representing the name Sergei but also quotes Katerina’s arioso from Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, ‘Seryosha my darling’.

When he found that he was the dedicatee of the Fourteenth Quartet, Shirinsky said: “Now I feel that my life has been worthwhile.” Alas, he died during rehearsals for the Fifteenth Quartet, premièred by the veteran Taneyev Quartet of Leningrad. But the Beethoven Quartet did play the work with a new cellist and made an excellent recording, which the Pacifica players might investigate to their advantage.

Having played like a Trojan throughout the series, second violinist Sigurbjörn Bernhardsson led off the fugal opening movement very awkwardly. It is not necessary to play senza vibrato in this music, which pays tribute not only to Beethoven’s Opus 131 but to Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ and Russian chant. In keeping his left hand inert, Bernhardsson was relying on maintaining steady contact between bow and strings, and this he failed to do. But the movement did gather tension and momentum – and a modicum of vibrato – as it went on.

When I first heard this work, played by the Borodin Quartet, there was so much coughing and shuffling of feet that it was almost impossible to concentrate on the musical argument. After that, the Borodin players started performing the quartet by candlelight, which helped to focus attention. We have come a long way since then, and the Wigmore audience now takes Shostakovich’s six Adagios in its stride – after all, Haydn’s Seven Last Words have never bothered anyone. Apart from that early faltering, the Pacifica people hardly put a foot wrong. The muted ‘Nocturne’ was very beautiful and the ‘Funeral March’ magnificent, with superb solo contributions. The ‘Epilogue’ was beautifully paced and voiced. What a cycle it has been, perhaps the best-ever heard in London.

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