January 15, 2008

A Musical Conversation

By Lisa Hirsch

The Pacifica Quartet performed at Stanford Lively Arts on Wednesday, bringing with it a program of Beethoven, Carter, and Smetana. The program notes made much of the fact that the Beethoven (Op. 18, No. 2) and the Smetana (Quartet No. 1 in E Minor, "From My Life") were written when their composers were going deaf. Still, the works themselves, which respectively opened and closed the concert, don't have much in common.

Pacifica Quartet

Neither did the Pacifica's approach to them. The Beethoven is the shortest of the six quartets making up Op. 18, and has a formal oddity or two, most notably the lack of a true slow movement. There's only the brief slow introduction to the second movement's Allegro. The work received a graceful, poised, and witty performance. The players emphasized its transparency and played with notable attention to dynamic details and articulation.

The silences in the second movement's introduction were perfectly timed, giving them surprising weight and meaning. Frustratingly, first violinist Simin Ganatra had pitch problems in some high positions, the only significant flaw in the performance.

For the Smetana, the Pacifica adopted a considerably more robust approach, in keeping with the heartier character of the music. The players' tone thickened and became weightier, and their fortes were louder than in the Beethoven. This sometimes bogged down the music. The slow third movement, which featured a highly dramatic cello solo, beautifully played by Brandon Vamos, needed sharper articulation and less of a wash-of-sound approach.

The last movement, marked Vivace, would have worked better if played faster or in a style that made it feel fleeter. Moreover, despite the increased weight and volume, the sound didn't seem to intensify or make more of an impact than the lighter sound used for the Beethoven and Carter quartets. The dry acoustics of Dinkelspiel Auditorium certainly didn't help, though it also seemed that in her solos Ganatra wasn't able to generate enough volume.

The second movement, Allegro moderato à la polka, presented special problems for the quartet. You could hear how hard the players tried to capture the particular metrical lifts of Czech dances, but their linguistic accent wasn't quite right. It was difficult to tell whether the movement was a straightforward polka or a parody of a dance-hall band.
Superbly Played Carter Quartet
Between the Beethoven and the Smetana, and rounding out the first half of the program, came Elliott Carter's 1995 Quartet No. 5. The composer turned 99 last month, and in this centenary year it's likely we'll have many opportunities to hear his music. The Pacifica has performed each of Carter's string quartets many times, sometimes achieving the tour de force of playing all five on a single program.

The Pacifica's long experience with this music paid off in a superb performance. Carter has said that he wrote the work to reflect what happens during a chamber music rehearsal, where the players are likely to talk, play fragments of the piece under rehearsal, and otherwise experiment between longer and more concentrated stretches of playing. Thus, the fifth quartet is structured as an introduction, and six sections are interleaved with five interludes. During the interludes, the music is conversational and consists of fragments of the section that has just been played or is about to be played. This structure gives the work a marked feeling of improvisation and of deep, yet spontaneous, discussion among the players.

Carter's music has a justified reputation for complexity, and it shows in the notation for the fifth quartet. A beat may be divided into seven notes, of which only the second, fourth, and fifth are played, and another instrument may be playing five notes in that same beat. For all the complexity, though, this is not difficult music to listen to or follow. The structure is perfectly audible, and the named sections are full of character and much sonic beauty. The third named section, Presto scorrevole (“fast and flowingly”), is as playful as can be, while the Adagio sereno's eerie harmonics make the players sound like an organ or a distant wind choir.

The Pacifica's performance brought out all the conversation and conflict inherent in the work. The group is in the process of recording all of Carter's quartets for Naxos — the first CD will be released later this month — and the cycle is sure to be outstanding.

Lisa Hirsch is a technical writer. She studied music at Brandeis and SUNY/Stony Brook.