In concert: String Quartet No. 8, op. 110; Pacifica Quartet, January 11, 2011

The Pacifica Quartet’s second of two Portland concerts last night was laid out similarly to the first, with a Shostakovich quartet sandwiched between one by Beethoven and another by one of the great German romantics, and the Pacificas executed it with the same flair.  Last night’s program was actually the more enjoyable of the two:  Beethoven’s F-major quartet, op. 18, no. 1 took the evening off to a spirited start, alternately jaunty and somber; there and in Shostakovich’s eighth quartet, the group played with a particularly clean and well-balanced sound.  For Robert Schumann’s op. 41, no. 1 quartet in the second half they played with a slightly richer texture well suited to that work’s high emotional saturation and tinge of Schumannesque weirdness.  Schumann is one of those composers whose work I don’t know particularly well and should get to know better, since most of what I hear makes an impression.  (This project will actually touch on Schumann directly, eventually, as Shostakovich reorchestrated his cello concerto late in life.)  Their encore tonight was the Cavatina from Beethoven’s thirteenth string quartet, which lowered the energy level after the wide-open Schumann but didn’t cut the audience’s enthusiasm.

When I reach it in sequence I’ll try to unpack all of Shostakovich’s musical self quotations in the eighth, once I can point back to each of the works he references, but at a high level the eighth quartet is a five-movement meditation on the composer’s signature “DSCH” motto theme shot through with recollections of his earlier milestone works.  Prior to their performance, violinist Sibbi Bernhardsson stood up to introduce the work and, with a few examples played by his fellows, gave a concise explanation of the DSCH theme — the notes D, E flat, C, and B, which in traditional German notation are rendered D – Es – C – H, thus forming the initials D. Sch. for (in German transliteration) Dmitri Schostakowitsch — which the mostly unfamiliar audience seemed to appreciate.  He also described the circumstances of Shostakovich’s anguished composition of the work (as was the case last night and happens often enough, the context of Shostakovich’s life merited a pre-performance mention), albeit without the history, verging on mythology, that Shostakovich had just been bullied into joining the Communist Party.

The eighth, then, as Shostakovich wrote to his friend Isaak Glikman soon after composing it in 1960, is a memorial for himself; I hear shades of self-recrimination mixed in with its self-pity.  In a way it is a supremely self-involved work, yet its emotional directness and simple musical development make it Shostakovich’s easiest quartet to relate to, and one of its most popular.  The Pacifica’s clean, almost sleek performance brought the motion of the quartet’s voices to the fore and gave it a medium weight that didn’t bog down in its own sense of tragedy, an especially good approach in the funeral outer movements.  The fast, panicky second movement came off with claustrophobic intensity, and all the blood-boiling excitement I remember from first listening to the work on CD as an eighteen-year-old.  They brought a bit of theatrical showiness to the brittle, ironic third movement; in contrast, they moved briskly through the fourth movement’s long, dramatic crescendos, serving in both cases to open up the work’s interiority a bit.  Brandon Vamos’ playing was exceptionally plaintive in two key cello solos and the ensemble managed a seemingly impossible dying-away at the work’s end.

For Monday’s concert I brought my girlfriend along and made a date out of it but last night I simply strolled in by myself after a late day at work, which needless to say diminishes the concert-going experience; it makes me more susceptible to being put off by the inorganic atmosphere of professional chamber series or the shallow, sentimentalizing “ooh”ing and “ahh”ing from the crowd at this or that terrible detail of the composer’s life.  (A distracting, probably electronic chirping sound of some kind throughout the Shostakovich’s fourth movement pushed me toward the grumpier end of the spectrum too.)  But the audience, including myself, responds in a completely engaged and authentic way — more so with chamber or solo performers, I think, than most of the bigger symphony orchestra shows — so the concert atmosphere, as much as I can bemoan this or that detail, is doing its job after all.  And certainly the musicians, deeply committed and so exquisitely well-trained that the paying listener such as myself can take the works’ technical challenges entirely for granted, are beyond reproach here.

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