String Quartet in A minor, Op.13
String Quartet No.5
String Quartet in C sharp minor, Op.131
[Simin Ganatra & Sibbi Bernhardsson (violins), Masumi Per Rostad (viola) & Brandon Vamos (cello)]
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 24 November, 2004
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
The Pacifica Quartet’s evening-length cycle of Elliott Carter’s string quartets was a highlight of the 2003 Edinburgh Festival, and the ensemble’s success in leaving its imprint on such demanding music was much in mind come this Wigmore Hall debut – timely given that this is the Pacifica’s tenth year of existence.
Carter’s quartets are about effecting continuity within and between movements, which made the coupling of similarly focused quartets from over a century earlier a pertinent one.
The account of Mendelssohn’s A minor Quartet potently combined searching emotion and technical fluency. True, the teenage composer’s grafting of formal principals from Beethoven’s late quartets onto the customary four movements can seem inspired ‘from without’: Mendelssohn drawing on theexample of his mentor without yet comprehending his emotional experience. Yet the resolve which the Pacifica drew from the Allegro left no doubt as to the musicians’ identification withthe composer’s aspirations – as surely as the Adagio’s shifting repose and agitation was conveyed, and the whimsical contrasts of the Intermezzo. The finale’s dramatic immediacy did not undermine the inevitability of the return back to the meditation that ends the movement, and frames the whole work, in serene acceptance.
Given the identification with Carter’s quartets that the Pacifica evinces, it made sense to feature one in this Wigmore debut. The Fifth Quartet (1995) is the shortest and outwardly the lightest of the cycle, yet with a sharpness of focus and clarity of thought to banish any sense of it being an old man’s trifling. The six movements are divided by ‘rehearsal’ interludes and framed by an introduction and the briefest of codas, all of which allude to ideas and gestures already heard or soon to come. This gives the work the feeling of a divertissement, alternately lively and thoughtful in manner, whose evolving character lies not so much in the opposition between players as in the subtle differentiation between movements. Such music calls for superfine expressive light and shade – qualities supplied in no small measure by thePacifica, whose attentiveness to such as the variety of pizzicato techniques enveloping the final movement, or the different musical stases which underpin the second and fifth movements, confirmed an appreciation of this Carter Quartet as being wholly distinct from any other.
So to the original integrated string quartet bar none – Beethoven’s C sharp minor, and a journey which traverses inward self-communing to resolute, even abrasive defiance, a journey which the Pacifica has the measure, even if the finer subtleties of the composer’s creative imagination so far elude them. What is (not surprisingly) impressive is the way the musicians vindicate the formal design, expressively indenting the final paragraph of the opening fugue (which was otherwise too emotionally lightweight) and also the coda of the central variations (limpidly rendered)so that a designated seven-movement sequence effectively becomes ten: each main movement preceded, or anticipated, by a transitional passage which cements the formal logic of the work in no uncertain terms. Along with the variations, the scherzo was the most satisfying part of this performance – its manifold, and manic, repetition as unnerving as it was scintillating. The second movement had the right sense of poise for all that it lacked gravitas, and if the forcefulness of the finale was a little tooreigned in, there was no doubting the sense of arrival as those final three chords were approached then decisively stated.
So, an auspicious London debut for one of the most musically accomplished and enterprising younger ensembles. The Pacifica’s Mendelssohn cycle, due for release on Cedille early next year, will be worth acquiring – as should the integral Carter cycle that the Pacifica amply deserves the opportunity to record.