Sunday, September 14, 2014

Review: Pacifica Quartet

Sept. 13, Virginia Commonwealth University

You don’t hear many programs in which Joseph Haydn is the second-wittiest composer. The Pacifica Quartet managed that programming feat in its return engagement at Virginia Commonwealth University, opening the new season of Rennolds Chamber Concerts.

The top wit? György Ligeti, the Hungarian-born late-20th century master whose String Quartet No. 1 (“Métamorphoses nocturnes”) is part-homage to Béla Bartók, part-funhouse mirror-in-sound manipulation of a four-note motif into numerous shapes, shades and styles.

What could be a jarringly schizophrenic exercise – evocations of Bartók’s “night music” up against skittishly jazzy numbers and a woozy waltz – is instead a wide-ranging, technically dazzling, sometimes hilarious tonal essay, and a surprisingly compact one whose 12 interlocking movements zip along eventfully and with a coherence that testifies eloquently to Ligeti’s ingenuity.

The Pacifica – violinists Simon Ganatra and Sibbi Bernhardsson, violist Masumi Per Rostad and cellist Brandon Vamos – played the Ligeti with deep engagement and audible affection. The piece plays to several of the ensemble’s greatest strengths, a collective ear for the finest sonic nuance and a knack for highly transparent rendition of parts.

The foursome emphasized the same qualities in Haydn’s Quartet in B flat major, Op. 76, No. 4 (“Sunrise”); and three of the four, Bernhardsson, Rostad and Vamos, also captured the woodsy, rustic quality of Haydn’s string writing, to which few musicians outside historically informed circles are attuned. First violinist Ganatra, however, played against that grain with a bright, penetrating tone that leaped out of the ensemble.

This contrast of voicings – producing, in effect, music for violin and string trio – proved more effective in Felix Mendelssohn’s Quartet in F minor, Op. 80, the composer’s last substantial work, produced in the wake of the death of his sister, Fanny Mendelssohn Henselt (its adagio is an elegy to Fanny), and completed a few months before Felix himself died.

The piece is, stylistically and expressively, quite unlike the more familiar Mendelssohn, even at his most dramatic or turbulent. This music is darker, more intense and with an introspective quality more characteristic of later romantics such as Brahms or Tchaikovsky.

The Pacifica, which has recorded all the Mendelssohn quartets, effectively highlighted the differences in this last one, playing with go-for-broke energy and taut expressivity.

The group rewarded the following ovation with an encore: the taxing allegretto pizzicato from Bartók’s Quartet No. 4.