Thursday, January 14, 2010

Review: Pacifica Quartet

Jan. 14, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond

When the Pacifica Quartet replaced the Guarneri Quartet in residence at New York Metropolitan Museum of Art this season, did anyone think to subject the audience to a blindfold test? It would take a pretty sensitive set of ears to tell the two apart, especially in the core classical-romantic repertory.

Like the Guarneri, the Pacifica – violinists Simin Ganatra and Sibbi Bernhardsson, violist Masumi Per Rostad and cellist Brandon Vamos – favors a plummy, almost orchestral-scale collective sound with espressivo as its default expressive mode and moderato as its default tempo. The Pacifica is more firmly centered in pitch than the Guarneri was in its later years; the Pacifica seems to dote on fine balances of internal details and sometimes sounds most animated when playing very quietly. (Those latter attributes are probably what made its recordings of Elliott Carter’s quartets such a critical triumph.)

In its VCU performance – making up for a November appearance that was canceled after Ganatra suddenly fell ill – the Pacifica sampled Mendelssohn, whose quartets it has already recorded, and Shostakovich and Beethoven, whose quartets it will play in cycles in coming months.

The program opened with a richly expressive, generally mellow account of Mendelssohn’s Quartet in E flat major, Op. 12, that, to my ears, peaked in a quicksilver treatment of the canzonetta.

The foursome played Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 8 with a richness and tonal warmth arguably more suited to Brahms. The darkness was there – how could it not be? – but the Pacifica’s interpretation was short on bone-chilling starkness. The third-movement waltz was more mordant than demonic, and the famous "knocks on the door" of the fourth movement, while insistent, weren’t really ominous.

The group’s reading of Beethoven’s Quartet in B flat major, Op. 130, performed with the "Great Fugue" (Op. 133) as its finale, was animated and tonally refined except in the early going of the fugue, but emphasized the episodic nature of this piece. Curiously, the Pacifica paced the cavatina, marked adagio, more briskly than the third movement, marked andante.