String Quartet in E minor, Op.44/2
String Quartet No.2 in F, Op.92
Pacifica Quartet [Simin Ganatra & Sibbi Bernhardsson (violins), Masumi Per Rostad (viola) & Brandon Vamos (cello)]
Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood
Reviewed: 1 February, 2009
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
Prokofiev’s two string quartets enjoyed something of a revival in the mid-1990s with a spate of recordings, yet more recently seem to have disappeared from concert programmes.
It was therefore most welcoming to find his Second such work on this “Coffee Concert” morning programme. Written when Prokofiev was sent to the city of Nalchik for safekeeping when the Second World War started, it provides an unusual example of the composer setting folk-melodies. As might be expected he keeps the authentic Karbardinian tunes, but treats them in a way unmistakeably in keeping with his style: little humorous sideswipes, gritty harmonies and a bittersweet lyricism. The slow movement captures the atmosphere of impending war, whilst the two outer movements, both fast, are more rustic and extrovert.
Technically the Pacifica Quartet met the work’s challenges with relish, and in Simin Ganatra had a first violinist ready to inflect the melodies with the right ornamentation. It was often possible to discern an ‘outdoors’ quality to the music, though not the earthiness of an authentic performance. Nor was there enough humour given to the finale’s more furtive melodies. The slow movement formed the emotional centre, with a clear, high register cello solo from Brandon Vamos setting the main theme in icy context. The resolute first movement dealt well with Prokofiev’s sonata-style treatment of the themes, abundant in melody but again a little lacking in humour.
Complementing the Prokofiev, and changed in the programme to head the concert, was the second of Mendelssohn’s three string quartets published as Opus 44. Here there were fewer opportunities for humour, but these were, nevertheless, portrayed in the fizzing scherzo, set at a challenging tempo but with near-faultless playing.
The musicians’ playing was superb throughout, not just in the spiky rhythms of the scherzo but also in the terrific drive they found towards the end of the first and last movements. The first had a resolute presentation of the main melody, which gave way to sunnier climbs for its more lyrical counterpart, while the slow movement was tender and unhurried, the lighter textures presented beautifully.