Pacifica Quartet performs three masters’ late works on the highest level

Thu Dec 10, 2015 at 11:19 am
The Pacifica Quartet performed Wednesday night at 92Y. Photo: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

The Pacifica Quartet performed Wednesday night at 92Y. Photo: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

As much as critics enjoy uncovering subtle themes and hidden connections, sometimes a concert is just a damn fine concert: substantial music with no other theme than quality, played with a high level of musicianship and expression.

The Pacifica Quartet delivered a damn fine concert Wednesday night, at 92Y. In truth, the concert did have a theme, one that second violinist Sibbi Bernhardsson discussed from the stage after intermission. The idea behind the concert was “late works.”

But the music—Two Fragments and String Quartet No. 5 from Elliott Carter, Janáček’s String Quartet No. 2, “Intimate Letters,” and Beethoven’s Quartet No. 16, Op. 135—didn’t fully support the theme. While Janáček’s quartet was one of his last compositions, and Beethoven’s was indeed his very last, full completed work prior to his death, Carter didn’t fit into the box.

Carter did have a late period, one that lasted well over a decade, where his musical language grew increasingly aphoristic, and even whimsical, but that was part of an ongoing artistic process that would easily have continued had his life not been cut short prematurely at the age of 103.Further, the Fragments and Quartet No. 5, both now twenty years old, have hints of the late style without yet being a part of it.

No matter—the theme was a skeletal frame on which to hang superb performances of excellent music. The quartet sounded great all evening, and their Carter playing is by now something special. As a foursome, they have probably played this music more than any other contemporary quartet, and they approach it with ease and understanding.

Carter has been something of a pacesetter in Pacifica’s development as a group. When they first toured their Carter quartet cycle, in 2002–03, they had a tough, steely sound and strong, but slightly humorless, youthful focus. Now their sound is mellow but penetrating, like California sunshine.

The Fragments are like damaged parchment from an ancient time with curious, mysterious markings. One comes to expect density and complexity in Carter’s music, but these pieces, especially as played by the Pacifica, are full of space, and the musicians were confident enough to let the silences linger.

The Quartet No. 5 is built with a challenging form. Like its predecessors there is a lot of simultaneous conversations among the instruments—but with clarifying moments of repose, where individual voices make their own statements. Out of at least a half dozen recordings and live performances of this piece– including two previous ones by the Pacifica–this was by far the most cogent and sensual one. Carter played with this much warmth and sociability is a welcome revelation.

Pacifica brought more musical intelligence and sympathy to Janáček’s haunting piece. “Intimate Letters” is a review by the composer of his frustrating, impossible, and even embarrassing infatuation with Kamila Stösslová, a much younger, married woman. Full of self-excoriating regrets and fantastic might-have-beens, the music alternates wildly between self-deluded romanticism and extremes of expressionism. The off-kilter, highly vocalized melodies and rhythms, along with the sense that there is not a shred of conventional social or musical decorum to mediate between Janacek’s inner life and the audience, give this music a fascinating sound, emotional power, and stretches of beauty that no other composer can create.

This was an intense performance, with Pacifica pushing at every edge. The yearning cut deeply, the moments of emotional repose were luminous, the rapid, harsh chords that interrupt the dance music in the final movement were savage. This approach paid the dividend of giving the music the authentic Janáček sound: eccentric logic conveying startling emotions.

The intensity carried over to the Beethoven quartet. Following Janáček, the music had a relatively relaxed feeling, though Pacifica played the opening movement with a tempo that was on the lively end of Allegretto. Beethoven’s own logic in this piece is also eccentric, or at least willful, discarding convention when it gets in the way of what he wants to do and where he wants to go.

Pacifica’s playing was sunny, charming, expressing the free-flowing interior conversation that the music reveals. In their playing the Lento assai movement was grave, gentle, and singing, and the opening of the final movement had intense weight. The Pacifica’s cantabile playing through to the end was a pleasure to hear.

Acknowledging the hearty applause, Pacifica sent the audience off with a concise encore (and another relatively late work), Astor Piazzolla’s Four, for Tango, a pungent and powerful amaro.

92Y presents guitarist Pepe Romero 8 p.m. December 12.

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