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Declarations – Music Between the Wars
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
String Quartet No.2 Intimate Letters (1928) [26:01]
Ruth CRAWFORD-SEEGER (1901-1953)
String Quartet (1931) [11:53]
Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
String Quartet No.4 Op.22 (1922) [26:24]
Pacifica Quartet
rec. Foelinger Great Hall, Krannert Centre, University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, September 2005 (Hindemith) and January 2006 (remainder)
CEDILLE RECORDS CDR 90000 092 [64:38]

This is a judiciously chosen selection that spans almost a decade. Hindemith’s Fourth Quartet was the earliest and Janáček’s Second followed in 1928. Ruth Crawford-Seeger’s acerbic and highly dissonant work was completed in 1931.

This gives us stylistic and geographical room a-plenty and the playing is unfailingly eloquent. Having had an unfortunate experience on disc with a quartet who treated the Janáček as an expressionist playground I was curious to hear what the Pacifica would do with it. I know them best from their marvellous Mendelssohn Quartet cycle, one that received lavish praise from me (see review). I suspected that they would bring the same beautifully balanced corporate strengths to bear and they don’t disappoint.

Among those greatest strengths are tonal congruence and warmth of phrasing. To put it bluntly they make a beautiful sound; no abrasions or crevices here. They begin the Janáček with a degree of urgency but don’t exaggerate the eerie sonorities. Having settled down they play with refinement and great neatness. They don’t linger unduly in the second movement, take a fine tempo in the third, and relax in the finale, which they take rather slowly. And yet …. Much as I disliked that other recording the Pacifica can be just a little too, well, a little too pacific. There’s a tendency to smooth out folkloric corners, to homogenise timbral and tonal questions. I wouldn’t say it’s a prim performance but it sounds too smooth, as if the Pacifica were trying to align it to more central quartet models and not to reinforce its broad independence of spirit. Elements of uncertainty with the syntax can be felt in small details such as the over-expressed incident at 3:40 in the first movement. Their approach tends to be too lateral in general and aloof in particular - and one doesn’t feel that they get much under its visceral skin.

The couplings however are better. The knotty Crawford-Seeger quartet is twelve minutes of gaunt and craggy, jagged gestures – dissonances of a highly complex and impressive kind. The Leggiero second movement is formally a scherzo but again highly nonconformist in spirit and sense of rhythm.  The slow movement has been likened to minimalism in its gradual changes of dynamics; but it does have a moment of crisis at roughly the golden mean point three quarters of the way through. The first violin drives the finale with dour answering phrases from his colleagues. A very tough, formidable work, played with considerable eloquence.

The Hindemith quartet is one that the composer promoted in the Amar-Hindemith quartet of which he was the violist. There’s nothing at all off-putting or academic about this work, one hammered out whilst Hindemith was in the foundry of chamber playing with his eminent colleagues. The Pacifica play with dramatic precision and no little warmth, all the while observing great beauty of tone. The second movement has considerable poetry but they also manage to imbue the third movement (of five) with considerable refinement.  The brief scherzo has real fire and the finale has an adroitly pointed fugal passage.

Throughout the recording is splendidly warm and attractive. The playing is as ever laudable. What I missed in the Janáček was drama but the Hindemith and Crawford-Seeger are regrettably seldom performed and are in the best of hands here.

Jonathan Woolf



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