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
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