Above: the artists of the Pacifica Quartet; from left, Masumi Per Rostand, Simin Ganatra, Brandon Vamos, and Sibbi Bernhardsson
Friday November 7th, 2014 - Tonight the phenomenal Pacifica Quartet were at Alice Tully Hall, the latest offering in Chamber Music Society's 2014-2015 season which has to date offered a feast of fantastic musicianship. And they're just getting started: so much more to look forward to.
The Pacifica Quartet's programming was especially strong: classics from the string quartet literature by Haydn and Mendelssohn book-ended the New York premiere of a truly fascinating work by Shulamit Ran and an atmospherice miniature from the great operatic composer Giacomo Puccini. In all of this, the players displayed a meshing of four distinctive voices into a polished and beautifully resonant chorale.
The opening movement of the Haydn 'Sunrise' quartet, which veers from meditative to dynamic, immediately displayed the high level of communicative artistry that the Pacifica musicians delivered all evening. The wellspring of their collective sound seems to emanate from the velvety sonorities which Brandon Vamos coaxes from his cello, inspiring a seamless passing of melody from voice to voice. From the rich harmonies of the Adagio, a silken rising theme for violin is luxuriantly spun out by Simin Ganatra. Following a Menuetto with witty nuances, the players launch the dance-like finale, only to accelerate to double-time for an exhilarating conclusion.
Shulamit Ran's Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory, Quartet for Strings #3, is one of the most inventive and impressive pieces of new music I've heard in recent seasons. Unlike some contemorary composers, Ran is not afraid of melodic beauty, and she can also employ distinctive touches which seem totally natural rather than lacquered on for effect.
Above: The Refugee by Felix Nussbaum, 1939
Ms. Ran drew inspiration for this work from the brief life and evocative paintings of Felix Nussbaum, a German Jew who met his doom at Auschwitz in 1944 at the age of 39.
The quartet opens with shimmering textures for the upper voices, soon joined by the soulful song of the cello. In the second movement, Menace, the composer introduces the stomping of feet which at first seems dancelike but has the darker implication of the tread of soldiers passing by; then a remarkable moment when violinist Sibbi Bernhardsson begins to whistle: a plaintive, lonely sound.
"If I must perish - do not let my paintings die!" implored Felix Nussbaum as he envisioned his fate; the third movement of the quartet is inspired by this quote and is filled with fluttering and tapping sounds, and an quietly ominous feel of encroaching insects. In the final movement, Shards, Memory, the music is soft and eerie; there's a haunting theme for viola, poignantly played by Masumi Per Rostand. In today's world, where stories of man's inhumanity to man still appear on a daily basis, we can only lament the fact that history seems to have taught us nothing. This quartet, so impressively constructed and so inspiringly played, is both thought-provoking and timely.
Puccini's Crisantemi, a brief and melancholy miniature tone-poem, drew rich playing from the musicians; the melodies were later incorporated by the composer into his career-changing opera, MANON LESCAUT.
Mendelssohn's Quartet in F-minor concluded the programme and extended the themes of sadness, tragedy, and loss found in the Ran and Puccini, for the composer wrote this quartet while in the depths of grief over the death of his sister Fanny. It was to be Mendelssohn's last important work.
All sense of merriment and joy are missing from this work; even the faster movements are tinged with darkish colours. The second movement, which normally would be a sprightly scherzo, is here marked by an almost somber doubling of viola and cello. The adagio has a plaintive quality, and as the concluding Allegro molto moves towards a climax, there's a fiendishing demanding violin theme that seems to express inner torment and feverish despair.
The audience embraced the Pacifica players warmly at the end, and they repaid our enthusiasm by generously encoring the second movement of the Ran. Learn more about the Ran work here.
This evening's repertory:
- Haydn Quartet in B-flat major for Strings, Hob. III:78, Op. 76, No. 4, “Sunrise” (1797)
- Ran Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory, Quartet No. 3 for Strings (CMS Co-Commission, New York Premiere) (2012-13)
- Puccini Crisantemi for String Quartet (1890)
- Mendelssohn Quartet in F minor for Strings, Op. 80 (1847)