String Quartet. No. 1 in C major, Op.49 (1938) [14.43]
String Quartet. No. 2 in A major, Op.68 (1944) [35.18]
String Quartet. No. 3 in F major, Op.73 (1946) [31.17]
String Quartet. No. 4 in D major, Op.83 (1949) [25.18] Sergei PROKOFIEV(1891-1953)
String Quartet No. 2 in F major, Op.92 (1941) [22.10]
Pacifica Quartet (Simin Ganastra and Sibbi Bernhardsson (violins);
Per Rostad (viola); Brandon Vamos (cello))
rec. Foelinger Great Hall, Krannert Center, University of Illinois,
18-20 November 2011 (Nos 1 & 2), 23-24 July 2010 (No. 3) and
29-31 August 2011 (No. 4, Prokofiev)
CEDILLE CDR 90000 130 [75.37 + 53.40]
The Pacifica Quartet has received rave reviews for its performances
of the Shostakovich string quartets in the concert hall. This
two-disc set comprises the second instalment of their recordings
of these works. The first volume, issued last year, included
the Quartets Nos. 5-8 (see review).
Presumably the remainder are to follow in due course.
The players start the First Quartet at quite a brisk
pace, considerably faster than either the Shostakovich Quartet
or the Brodsky Quartet in their complete cycles. Their speed
has more in common with that adopted by the Emerson Quartet
in theirs. At their faster speed they make less of the dynamic
extremes that their competitors find. This is a more light-hearted
reading, reflecting the innocence of the young composer’s
first essay in the medium. It is a valid and well-considered
approach, but it lacks a degree of involvement. The influences
of the classical style are given precedence over any more personal
statements in the work. However their playing of the Second
Quartet finds much more depth, and is superbly heartfelt
especially in the beautiful Recitative and Romance slow
movement. They launch themselves headlong into the following
Valse. In the final movement they give plenty of weight
to the statement of the opening theme of the variations. That
said, the Emerson gives even more, anticipating the more anguished
works that were to come and helped by the richer and more resonant
The Third Quartet, which begins the second disc, is given
a beautiful sense of mischief by the Pacifica players. This
suits the music very well. The Emerson players are more straightforward
here, and some of the humour is missing. The performance here
makes the tragedy which ensues more unexpected, and gives it
greater emotional impact. The attack on the stinging chords
which open the third movement are forceful without moving outside
the realms of chamber music. The Emersons sound almost orchestral
in the weight they give to the music here. The Fourth Quartet
- included with the First andSecond on the first
disc - is given a marvellous performance. There’s a nice
line in sly irony for the finale which the Emersons do not match.
As with the first volume in this cycle, the second comes coupled
with a quartet by one of Shostakovich’s contemporaries.
This serves to set the whole oeuvre in its historical
context - hence presumably the CD subtitle The Soviet Experience.
Unlike Shostakovich, whose fifteen quartets enshrine a wealth
of personal experience, Prokofiev’s two essays in the
genre are largely peripheral to his output. The Second Quartet,
written at the same time as the composer was working on War
and Peace, employs a number of traditional Kabardinian melodies
- from the region to which Prokofiev was evacuated during the
German invasion. In fact there are certainly deeper elements
here. These are fully realised by the players with some extremely
agitated passages delivered with all the required panache.
The booklet notes by Elizabeth Wilson are extremely comprehensive
- twenty pages of text. They give great amounts of detail on
the construction of each of the works here along with plentiful
information on the genesis of the pieces themselves. Incidentally
these notes correctly state that Shostakovich started writing
the First Quartet in May 1938 ready for its first performance
in October of that year. The copyright date on the Schirmer
edition of the score is given in the booklet as 1935 - I can
find no authority for this. Perhaps it is a simple misprint.
The playing is excellent throughout, with no sense of strain
and perfect tuning between the various members of the quartet.
They can well withstand the close balance of the recorded sound
to which they are subjected. Reviewers of the concert performances
by the Pacifica players have hailed them as some of the best
ever given. One can well understand their reasoning. Even the
understated delivery of the earlier quartets is clearly designed
to highlight the development of Shostakovich’s style throughout
the cycle. It falls into a deliberate pattern. On a personal
note I find the greater involvement of the Emerson Quartet -
and their more reverberant recording - more satisfying. Others
may react differently. Certainly there is much to admire in
these excellent, civilised and deeply considered performances.
The Shostakovich quartets can well tolerate a variety of different
interpretations, as is the nature of all great music.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
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