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Shostakovich: Pacifica String Quartet, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, 19.2.2011 (GG)


Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 11 in F Minor, Op. 122; String Quartet No. 13 in B flat minor, Op. 138; String Quartet No. 14 in F sharp Major, Op. 142; String Quartet No. 15 in F flat Minor, Op. 144


The night the Pacific Quartet concluded their Shostakovich Quartet cycle with the final works that confront death, and all that had been lost in life already, an appropriately bitter, icy wind blew through New York City. These concerts began in the fall and have gone in mostly chronological order, save for less than a handful of variations—Quartet No. 7 appeared on the first concert, No. 12 was on the penultimate program—and have all been preceded by talks from Wendy Lesser, who has written a fine book about the music. Lesser is not a musician or music scholar; she is a writer, and editor of The Threepenny Review, and in Music For Silenced Voices (Yale University Press), she writes from the perspective of a listener who is fascinated by the Quartets and seeks more knowledge of them, and perhaps an understanding of what they say about the man who wrote them. The Pacifica, while not necessarily reflecting her interests and conclusions, followed her in this delving spirit.


It’s easy to trace a musical biography through this body of work, and not much harder to trace a fairly accurate personal one. In that the cycle is much like the Beethoven Quartets, and has a claim to an equal greatness—there is certainly no sequence of String Quartets that surpass it, except for Beethoven’s. The styles and formal means of the composers differ in details, but there is an important parallel between the two, in that they used the building blocks of accepted, even common, musical language and fashioned the means to express profound and unfathomable ideas and emotions, the messy and beautiful and painful things about being human. A phrase or harmony will seem ordinary enough, but the motivic development will take it through unexpected turns and destinations. Shostakovich and Beethoven are both Romantic composers, and in their late works they both cosset themselves in hermetically private interior spaces, yet still enthrall with their imaginations, their craft, the confidence that someone will want to overhear their dialogues with themselves.


The Pacifica Quartet is recording all this music, and that is one of the more exciting prospects in the classical music business. These concerts attested to their excellent musicianship and musical intelligence. They were not perfect—the Quartet No. 1 had a shaky start, and in that and a few others first violinist Simin Ganatra had some difficulties with intonation—but the flaws were minor, temporary and technical. The group had things to say with conviction about all the pieces.


Their approach staked out an area that seems underexplored in the music. Their sound was very modern in the lack of pathos and bathos, and was very sympathetic to Shostakovich’s special brand of poker-faced intensity, the quality of a man who would rather stare at you in agony than speak. They played with power and finesse, never as aggressively as the Emerson Quartet, with what was a kind of intentional and subtly gradated understatement. It is a substantial journey into and through the emotional world of the Quartets, and it’s easy to take Shostakovich at what seems his surface meaning. It’s more rewarding to follow his aesthetic, which is to express every moment of the music with conviction, yet reserve a certain self-conscious doubt that leaves us wondering what, exactly, does he mean—is it this, or that? This is what was so impressive about the cycle in general and this concert in particular, that the Pacifica Quartet maintained this important, expressive ambiguity, carving out a clear path through treacherous territory.


They also managed the difficult and vital feat of not playing the early quartets from the perspective of the later ones. By the time of the last two, Shostakovich was a very different artist than he was at the first one, Op. 49, and the Pacifica pursued a sincere presentation and interpretation of his art, playing the first with a relative innocence and letting the weight of intensity, yearning, disillusion and dissolution accrete as the cycle went along. Their playing of the Quartet No. 8 was forceful and without dramatic histrionics; it bore witness to the piece and the composer’s thoughts. The Quartet No. 10, Op. 118, was one of the highlights of the cycle, played with great dignity, depth and beauty. One of the strengths the group has is their violist, Masumi Per Rostad, who has an exceptionally strong voice on the instrument, and the viola is more important in these works than it is in most of the repertoire. In the Quartet No. 13 in the final concert, he tapped the neck of his instrument with a pencil, rather than his bow, a simple and affecting change.


As the music of these final quartets flows along, it seems to stretch out in every direction, touching on countless possible ideas and meanings from instant to instant. The music changes almost immediately from one extreme to the next—the previous cry of anguish or genuflection seeming to disappear down the memory hole, so absolute is the new statement. Unlike Beethoven’s nineteenth-century manner, where a central idea is explored and developed, in these late works Shostakovich is on a constant, unsettling journey, not necessarily a hasty one but one without respite. It could be his inner agitation, it could be the inevitable approach of death, but the music works entirely from emotional logic, which is deeply personal and not at all logical in the constructed/composed sense. The Pacifica Quartet shone in these pieces, with deep conviction and grave beauty; the indescribable humor and tenderness that is revealed, against all odds, in the final minute of the Op. 142 was riveting and breathtaking. In the span of the last quartet, steadily rising in outcry and falling again in enervation, the suspense pointed clearly towards an unavoidable conclusion, while gripping our attention with every detail. After all this long way, the final moments of the Quartet No. 15 are perhaps the most ambivalent in all of music, a simple rising and falling phrase that wants to continue just a moment more, for resolution, but that Shostakovich determined was enough. The Pacifica let the music drift away into the night, and time, and history.


George Grella

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