Pacifica Quartet launches Shostakovich cycle with riveting performance

October 18, 2010

The Pacifica Quartet’s opening program of Dmitri Shostakovich’s complete string quartets could hardly have begun more auspiciously or with greater intensity.

Clearly there are more people interested in this ambitious project than some might think, judging by the packed house at Chicago’s Ganz Hall Sunday afternoon for the first of two concerts of this opening program. The Pacifica’s scrupulously prepared, riveting performances provided not just one of the most compelling chamber concerts of the season but also one of the finest musical events of the year. (The ensemble will bring the program to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art on October 23.)

The quartets weave through Shostakovich’s life like the surface of a winding, reflecting river—distortedly mirroring the war and politics of the 20th century, while providing the Russian composer with an outlet for his private thoughts as an artist living under the repressive Soviet regime.

Shostakovich’s quartets have been depicted by some as an unbroken landscape of bleak introspection. Yet, as Pacifica second violinist Sibbi Bernardsson pointed out in his perceptive spoken introduction, there is greater variety in this music than the cycle is often given credit for, as Sunday’s opening program of the first three quartets made manifest.

Written in 1938, Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 1 seems almost like a direct descendant of Tchaikovsky, even echoing the opening notes of his own First Quartet. The shortest of the fifteen quartets, it is also the lightest, perhaps reflecting Shostakovich’s relief and momentary optimism after the success of his Fifth Symphony restored him for a time to the Soviet commissars’ good graces.

There are fleeting shadows in this music but the overall profile is one of relaxed lyricism and gentle rumination. Those qualities were communicated in the Pacifica players’ taut yet sensitive performance, and reflected in Masumi Rostad’s soulful viola solo in the second movement. The finale was thrilling in its unclouded whirlwind energy without the driven, desperate expression of many Shostakovich closers.

The wartime Quartet No. 2 came six years later, in 1944. In this expansive work, Shostakovich’s individual approach is much more distinct in the haunted aggressive rhythms, distorted waltz and melodies with the contour of Jewish folk music.

Most individual is the appearance of Shostakovich’s cantilena-like solos as with the prominent violin writing in the second movement. Ominous, hopeful, searching, and confiding, this Recitative was deeply moving, played with extraordinary eloquence and artistry by first violinist Simin Ganatra.

The Pacifica’s lean, explosive brilliance fits this music like a perfectly tailored glove, as was made clear in the finale. With the folkish theme spinning off into ever more complex variations, the musicians’ playing was electrifying in its bravura and intensity, bringing the audience to its feet at the coda.

Shostakovich originally planned to append specific programmatic titles to the five movements of his Quartet No. 3 (1946) but wisely decided against it, since the music speaks so eloquently of the horrors and privations of war by itself.

Here Shostakovich is in full command and stylistic maturity, as with the ditsy little tune that opens the work growing ever more agitated in its development, and the mechanistic brutality of the scherzo. Again, the Adagio offers some respite with its aria-like violin writing, and Ganatra’s solos were like entreaties from a human voice answered by the numbed, desolate response of Rostad’s viola. The finale’s lilting dance tune is eventually overcome by darkness and ruin, and the long slow fade to silence could not have been more effective.

The laser-like concentration of the Pacifica’s playing was reflected in the attentive audience with not even a cough or a program rustle heard between movements to break the silence. This is one of the most important musical events of the season and you should not miss any of the four remaining programs.

The program will be repeated in New York at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Oct. 23. The Pacifica Quartet’s Chicago Shostakovich cycle continues Oct. 31 with Quartets Nos. 4 and 5, and the Piano Quintet with Orion Weiss. Concert times are 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.; 847-242-0775

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