The Pacifica Quartet, which was founded 26 years ago, gained particular notice for undertaking complete cycles of quartets by major composers, in performance as well as on recordings. Their CDs of Mendelssohn’s six quartets and Carter’s five are vibrant and arresting, and their readings of Shostakovich’s 15 can be filed in the top drawer, the more so since each installment provides context by including an accompanying quartet by such of the composer’s Soviet contemporaries as Myaskovsky, Weinberg, Prokofiev, and Schnittke. The ensemble has been based in the American Midwest all this time, currently serving as quartet-in-residence at Indiana University concurrent to a long-term position as “resident performing artist” at the University of Chicago. It’s anybody’s guess why it has taken so long for the group to be booked at Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, but the oversight was rectified when the foursome made a belated debut during the festival’s opening week.
One wishes we might have heard one of the cycles for which the group is famous, or at least a logical chunk of one, such as the three Op. 44 quartets of Mendelssohn or the final five of Shostakovich. That possibility has probably passed, since the group’s first violinist is set to depart about a month from now and, when her successor is selected, there will be a substantial settling-in period before the group should feel comfortable attacking large-scale cycles again.
Beethoven was at the core of their appearances here, which began with a noontime recital on July 19 at St. Francis Auditorium. Before they got to Beethoven, though, the Pacificas played a work that was written for them and probably new to all of us: Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory (String Quartet No. 3), composed in 2012-13 by Shulamit Ran, an Israeli-American composer-colleague of theirs at the University of Chicago. In a commentary printed in the program insert, she explained that her aim was for the piece to exist as a work of “pure music” while nonetheless effecting “an awareness … of matters which are, to me, of great human concern.” In this case, she explained, those matters involved the Holocaust, the piece’s particular ideas being triggered by artworks of that era and the years leading up to it. The four-movement work had a patchwork quality in which dissonant expanses were anchored by consonant resting-points. It made reference to tunes in a popular style (entirely original melodies, I think), and it made rampant use of exaggerated articulation, perhaps as a salute to Bartók or Shostakovich. At certain places, the string-players also whistled and stomped their feet, and in the third movement they imitated a swarm of bees. It was all engaging and pleasant to hear. Its connection to the Holocaust was made more evident by the program note than by the piece itself.
The Pacifica’s Beethoven interpretations were divided between that concert (the F-major Quartet, Op. 59, No. 1) and one the following evening (the C-minor Quartet, Op. 18, No. 4). They gave the first of these a rugged, dramatic workout, generally marked by what I think of as “Cadillac” playing, technically impressive if sometimes more showy than subtle. Now and then it seemed that their Cadillac might have benefited from a tuneup — by which I mean literally a tuneup, since the first violin and cello sometimes stretched their intonation in opposite directions. The third movement (Adagio molto e mesto) was admirable. This is the music that, on one of Beethoven’s sketches, is accompanied by the words “A weeping willow or an acacia over my brother’s grave.” It’s not clear just what that signifies, but it does suggest the tragic mien of these pages, which the ensemble allowed to pour forth with full vibrato. When a Slavic-sounding tune passes through in the middle, the foursome enriched it with melancholic swagger. The vigorous finale employs an authentic Russian folk tune as a bow to the work’s Russian patron. Perhaps its most surprising turn comes practically at the end, when the music takes a pensive turn and the first violin intones the melody on high. I wished the Pacificas had invested this adagio passage with a more beatific sound, which could have been magical; but they seemed to be athletes at heart.
In the early C-minor Quartet, played the next evening, intonation again stretched out of bounds here and there; I noticed it at the extremes of high and low, although near the end of the Trio section of the Menuetto a spread-out chord was frightfully out of tune by general consent. Sometimes the first violin’s tone was intensified to a point that sacrificed luster at the altar of expressive effect, a trade-off that is not to my personal taste. On the whole, the work’s phrases proceeded with comfortable flow and energy, and one especially admired the tiptoeing ensemble finesse in the second movement.
On July 24 and 25 (I heard the latter), the Pacifica teamed up with the Johannes String Quartet for Mendelssohn’s evergreen Octet, with the two foursomes more or less facing each other rather than commingled. This festival standard is pretty much a foolproof piece as long as all hands just play their notes, of which there are very many. The players didn’t impose much interpretation on it. It seemed surprisingly genteel at the outset, sedate in attitude if not in tempo, but it came more alive as the first movement unrolled. The Scherzo was a transparent delight. Although I prefer to hear the second cello playing discernible notes rather than just making percussive bow attacks at the start of the finale (the latter seems to be the norm nowadays), the finale ended up bustling happily, and a good time was had by all.
The Johannes had opened that concert with Homunculus, composed for them in 2007 by Esa-Pekka Salonen. The composer reported that he was inspired by a concept about male reproductive fluid popular in the 17th century — “that the sperm was in fact a ‘little man’ (homunculus) that was placed inside a woman for growth into a child” and that “if the sperm was a homunculus, identical in all but size to an adult, then the homunculus may have sperm of its own,” and so on to “an endless chain of homunculi.” I’m not sure that we ought to refer to this as one of the composer’s seminal works, but let’s do it anyway. Salonen’s music is never less than entertaining, and this is no exception, sporting a nicely paced succession of contrasting episodes. Slower sections sometimes exude a hovering wooziness, and a superimposed melody — say, from the warm-voiced cello — may make listeners feel they are in two universes at once. The piece’s musical ancestry seems at least partly hybridized out of Bartók and Bernard Herrmann, but one also notes input from the Minimalists in the repetitions of sweeping bow-strokes and in buzzing pulsations born of Terry Riley or recreational pharmaceuticals, to the extent that those differ.
The Johannes also gave themselves over to Beethoven for the second half of a noon recital on July 26, but they opened that program with Mozart’s D-minor Quartet (K.421/417b). Again with the reproduction; this is the piece Mozart composed — on June 17, 1783 — while his wife was giving birth to their first child in the next room. (The baby died two months later.) It is an outstanding masterpiece, but you wouldn’t have guessed it from this lackluster reading. It sounded like the players had just rolled out of bed and weren’t yet ready to go to work. Musical ideas passing from one instrument to another lacked consistency, phrasing was misaligned, and nothing added up to much. The musicians kept nicking strings they didn’t mean to, which is the quartet equivalent to having a bad hair day — not a mark of flawed character, but not attractive either. All the potential “aha!” moments achieved only “ho-hum,” and even the yodeling trio remained earthbound.
Maybe the foursome downed espressos when they left the stage, because they seemed more alert when they returned to play Beethoven’s Quartet in E minor (Op. 59, No. 2). Their performance of the second movement, the Molto adagio, was especially gratifying, sometimes evoking the timeless quality that inhabits its core. On the whole, though, this was not a very imaginative interpretation, and on the few occasions when the players did propose distinctive concepts, they weren’t necessarily good ones. At one point they decided to infuse the folk-tune in the third movement (again, for the Russian patron) with a heavy dose of vulgarity; but was this really a good idea, since the choice, at least as realized here, yielded only ugliness rather than humor? The score at that passage reads just fortissimo and sempre staccato (always with short notes) — not “coarse.” Baffling to me, in the same movement, was the second violin’s choosing to perpetually accent an off beat in a frequently recurring motif, which the others picked up on only sporadically, if at all — an inconsistency that grew increasingly annoying. There’s no overlooking that these are fine musicians, although after repeated exposure — they are festival regulars — I am not sure that the four are optimally matched in musical terms. Each has a distinguished career apart from the ensemble. But they get together on a part-time basis, and one hears it. In these performances, the Johannes String Quartet did not display the automatic, organic sense of unanimity one hears in the most polished ensembles.
Some of the pieces I have mentioned appeared on grab-bag programs with unrelated repertoire: on July 20, Dvoˇrák’s Piano Trio in F minor (Op. 65), played by violinist Kyoko Takezawa, cellist Keith Robinson, and pianist Orion Weiss; on July 25, Beethoven’s Piano Trio in E-flat major (Op. 70, No. 2), with Takezawa and Weiss but with Nicholas Canellakis as cellist. Both were honorable performances, about as well crafted as one dare expect from an incidental ensemble of musicians — indeed, excellent ones — who don’t play chamber music together as a matter of course. The Dvoˇrák Trio has some things to recommend it, but it always sounds padded to me, and it invariably overstays its welcome. Here we encountered a few passages in which everyone seemed busily occupied, their noses buried in their overstuffed parts, not paying much attention to one another. I am not a fan of these mix-and-match programs that skip from one performing group to another. This one began with Frank Bridge’s Lament for Two Violas, a dispiriting piece I think only two violists could love. It was played by Tien-Hsin Cindy Wu and Che-Yen Chen. The work is programmed quite a bit, and I suppose it is modestly interesting as a study in viola timbre; but it tries the patience, and it is the wrong piece to put on the same program as Dvoˇrák’s F-minor Piano Trio, which does the same.
The Beethoven Trio is a far better piece, an unusual one in the composer’s canon. Here is a work written in 1808 — unquestionably “middle Beethoven” — that draws much of its substance from his language of a decade earlier, rather as if an architect were constructing an up-to-date building while recycling recognizable materials from a demolished edifice. That is an interesting compositional challenge, and the result is fascinating. One greatly admired the attention Weiss lavished on details of the piano part while worrying that the crispness of his articulation might verge on the mannered. I don’t think he quite crossed the line, though, and he also struck the tone just right in the unspeakably weird, chromatically altered four-note scale fragments that descend from who knows where in the third movement. In those passages, Beethoven looks to the future as well as to the past.
Orion Weiss also had occasion to shine on his own, at a noontime solo recital on July 21. Such an interesting playlist it was: Brahms’ Six Piano Pieces (Op. 118); Schoenberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces (Op. 19); and Shostakovich’s Piano Sonata No. 2. The Brahms set is the most familiar in this lineup, and it was frankly disappointing. Even in the second movement, the most famous expanse in the set, Weiss seemed disinclined toward the sheer loveliness the piece proclaims; it was a mostly un-Romantic interpretation of the ne plus ultra of Romantic exquisiteness. In the fifth piece, actually titled Romance, one yearned for more fantasy, more distinguishing of the inner line through the thumbs’ differentiating their tone from the surrounding texture. The Schoenberg set, in comparison, was marvelous, wrapped in mystery and bursts of insight. Weiss did not let the set’s last notes die before he launched into the Shostakovich sonata, a work that is mostly the domain of Russian pianists and is rarely programmed on these shores. Composed during World War II, the piece is reputed to be somber, but it did not seem unremittingly so in this vital interpretation. Weiss delivered a clearly etched reading of the toccata-like first movement; in the second movement he seemed to run through reminiscences of the Brahms and Schoenberg pieces that had come before; and he introduced the third-movement variations with a combination of innocence and desolation before sampling an entire encyclopedia of tonal shadings, particularly in the treble range. Beyond being smart and interesting, his programming was supported by an interpretation that underscored a distinct point of view. ◀