May 4 Pacifica Quartet


Photo Credit: Anthony Parmelee

Photo Credit: Anthony Parmelee

At three-quarters’ strength, Pacifica Quartet sounds remarkably ‘whole’

There was more to celebrate in the Pacifica Quartet’s delivery Saturday than just good music

By David Abrams

As may be expected of one who performs in a professional string quartet, Sibbi Bernhardsson has an acute sense of timing.  His stork, not so much.

Bernhardsson, long-time second violinist with the acclaimed Pacifica Quartet, did not make the trip to Syracuse Saturday for the 2012-13 season-ending concert of the Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music due to the anticipated birth that evening of his new daughter.  The resulting change in personnel prompted a switch on the program, with a quartet by Luigi Boccherini scratched in favor of one by Joseph Haydn.

That made two good reasons to pass out the cigars.

Since its last SFCM appearance in October 2010, Pacifica has enhanced its reputation as one of the hottest commodities in the chamber music world — landing a residency at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music and completing a residency at Metropolitan Museum of Art that last year included the complete Beethoven quartet cycle.  And while Bernhardsson’s absence may have been disappointing to those who’ve come to know Pacifica’s distinctive sound and balance, the quality of playing Saturday suggests that three-quarters of this ensemble’s regular players is enough to outshine 100-percent of a good many quartets on today’s circuit.

Add a Shostakovich quartet to the program, and the math works out even better.

Pacifica has carved its niche as one of the best interpreters of the Shostakovich quartets, and just weeks ago released the third installment of a four-volume, eight-CD set of his complete cycle of 15 quartets.  Saturday’s performance of the Quartet No. 2 in A Major gave listeners a sampling of the ensemble’s depth of understanding of the enigmatic Soviet composer.

The Quartet No. 2, which along with his final quartet is the longest of Shostakovich’s works in this genre, is probably the least well known among them.  Written in 1944, it was one of only two chamber works the composer wrote during World War II, each heavily injected with Jewish musical inflections.

There’s little room for civility and good manners in the opening rustic movement of Quartet No. 2.  You’ve simply got to get down and dirty.  The four instrumentalists rolled up their sleeves, gritted their teeth and dug firmly into the Bartok-like opening — tossing around the wild open-fifths and Lydian seasoned scales, and exaggerating the ubiquitous dotted-rhythmic figures so as to capture the raw ethnic Eastern European flavors.  When the smoke cleared at the end of the movement, one could all but see the dirt underneath each player’s fingernails.

The Jewish elements in this work are most apparent during the slow and somber Recitative and Romance movement that followed.  Listeners familiar with Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1, composed three years after this string quartet, will experience here the genesis of that concerto’s lengthy and profound cadenza.  Ganatra’s mournful recitative, played over a slow chordal accompaniment provided by the three other players, was a perfect combination of anguish and schmaltz.

The third movement Waltz is a distorted and emotionally disturbing parody of a waltz.  Pacifica found the right balances of character here, capturing the alternating moods of the morose, the macabre and the downright ugly.  The fourth movement Theme with Variations grows angrier as the variations progress, and Pacifica faithfully and adroitly captured the composer’s inner frustrations, rage and fury.

The program began in much sunnier fashion with Haydn Op. 76, No. 4 (“Sunrise”) Quartet.

Pacifica’s unhurried manner of playing in the opening Allegro con spirito movement was a welcome departure from the more usual buoyancy and fluff I’ve come to expect.  Theirs was a tender and rubato-driven interpretation that looks more ahead to Mendelssohn and Schumann than it does back to Viennese classicism.  Tempos were relaxed and deliberate, allowing Ganatra to shape and nurtured her phrases with great warmth.  I especially enjoyed the feel of Pacifica’s rustic folk style in the third movement Menuetto that almost danced off the page and into the aisles of the auditorium.  The ensemble’s piú presto coda in the Finale movement was, to be sure, utterly dazzling.

Bedrich Smetaňa’s largely autobiographical Quartet No. 1 in E Minor (“From my Life”) details specific aspects of the composer’s life, particularly his struggle with deafness.  At one point in the final movement the first violin sounds a high E (harmonic) that floats dramatically in the stratosphere — giving the listener a taste of the ringing in his ears Smetaňa had to bear prior to the onslaught of deafness.

I generally find unabashedly self-indulgent works such as this to be tiresome  just like Janacek’s String Quartet No. 2 (“Intimate Letters”), or for that matter Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben.  But I’ll admit to some engaging musical effects in the Smetaňa that, in the hands of Pacifica, came off rather well.  Among these is the amiable rustic strains of the ebullient second movement Polka, a rubato flavored folk dance with a playful Trio that offers some irresistible visual effects such as the syncopated double-stops in the two violins, played in tongue-in-cheek fashion on the up-bow.

Alexander Kerr, the accomplished former concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra now a professor of violin at Indiana University, proved a competent stand-in for Bernhardsson, hitting all the right notes and weaving his lines seamlessly among those of the three other players.  On the whole, however, Kerr’s modestly sized sound was not well suited to the full-timbred and richly shaped tone of Ganatra, creating an imbalance in sound that was difficult to ignore.

This disparity of tone was especially pronounced in the opening two movements of the Haydn and again in the final movement of the Smetana, where the first violinist’s extroverted sound simply overpowered that of Kerr.  In all fairness, however, one can’t expect a new player to sit in with an established chamber ensemble and blend in as if they’d been rehearsing for years.

If there was a silver lining to the substitution of the second violinist, it was that the sound of Ganatra’s instrument was that much easier to identify and scrutinize.

I have admired Ganatra’s particular brand of music making ever since I first heard her at the 2005 Skaneateles Festival. She has everything it takes for a first-chair player — an exquisite tone, firm technical command of the instrument, a secure high register, keen ensemble skills and the ability to take command and lead the ensemble.

But Ganatra’s skills go well beyond what’s expected. She draws the audience into the music with her warm sense of phrasing and passion, and gives them a sense of belonging to the listening experience. In short, she has it all.

So, too, does the audience that comes to experience the Pacifica Quartet in live performance.

Details Box:
What: The Pacifica Quartet, sponsored by Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music
Where: Lincoln Middle School, 1613 James Street, Syracuse
When: May 4, 2013
Time: About 2 hours
Next concert: 2013-14 begins Sep. 28 (Borromeo Quartet with Richard Stoltzman)