I’m getting off to a decidedly slow start to 2011, Shostakovich-wise, but before picking up where I left off I’ll fast-forward to the 1960s for a pair of string quartets that the Pacifica Quartet is performing in Portland this week. The first of their two concerts was last night, featuring Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 10, op. 118 of 1964, bookended by Mendelssohn’s opus 12 quartet and Beethoven’s “Hero” quartet in C Major, op. 59, no. 3.
I like the Pacifica Quartet’s sound: They have a romantic warmth and richness, at the other end of a spectrum from (for instance) the razor-edged modernistic style of the Emerson Quartet, whom I’ve also heard perform a good amount of Shostakovich. They were at their best in medium-loud, noodly, slightly mysterious passages, which they played with a light touch in the sly canzonetta movement of the Mendelssohn as well as the outer movements of the Shostakovich. The Hero quartet making up the second half of the show (and undoubtedly its center of gravity) brought out a tighter sound and cleaner lines, at least in part because of the piece’s sense of scale and space, which easily exceeds Shostakovich’s quartet writing easily at its most expansive.
The tenth is one of Shostakovich’s more expansive string quartets — I think it at least has the most symphonic structure out of his fifteen. The quartet’s body plan is very similar to that of the composer’s first violin concerto (a symphonically broad work) of 1948: A searching first movement gives way to a furiously fast second; a slow passacaglia forms the work’s emotional center, then gives way to a nominally lighter final movement that climbs to a height of anxiety, with the passacaglia theme breaking through at a key moment. It’s the last quartet Shostakovich wrote before entering his cryptic, more modernist-leaning late period and it is, measured against the psychological depth of his chamber works, relatively outward-facing. Yet the Pacifica’s violist, Masumi Per Rostad, made an insightful point in some prefatory remarks about the quartet: In contrast to the Mendelssohn and Beethoven works on the program, Shostakovich’s first and last movements are less driving and purposeful than the inner ones, creating a sense of mystery. Indeed, the quartet opens with a quizzical, almost affectless, downward-stepping figure, which the work ultimately circles back to in its final bars, creating less of a conclusion than a sense of a passing, ruminative mood.
I was musing on the drive home from the hall that the tenth may be my least favorite quartet out of Shostakovich’s cycle, which mainly speaks to the consistent quality of the set, as I feel overwhelmingly positive about the tenth. It does feel like stylistically familiar territory and it lacks the emotional heft of many of his similar works, particularly in the passacaglia — the return of its theme in the final movement, too, feels academic, an imitation of the psychological crisis point that the same move marks in the violin concerto — but it’s a strong work in its own right. The Pacifica Quartet’s style works well for it. They sounded great in the blithe, wandering, slightly stunned music of the final movement; their warmth became effectively huskier for the intense music of the fast movements. A highlight was the end of the second movement, with pairs of instruments trading off strident, squeezebox-like drones while the remaining two worked through a fidgety theme (similar to one at the conclusion of Shostakovich’s then-recent thirteenth symphony) with increasing insistence.
It was a fun show, attended by the usual sea of gray heads but, assuredly, no committed fans of the University of Oregon’s football team, which was in the middle of its national championship game. (In one of those moments of quiet, situational, chamber-music-concert hilarity, one of the Friends of Chamber Music organizers read out the score as of the show’s opening and, in her bright arts-administrator voice, delivered one of the great sports cliches: “The score is Oregon 11, Auburn 16. It’s halftime; a lot can still happen…”) As a somewhat unlikely but extremely likable encore, the Pacificas played the all-pizzicato movement from Bela Bartok’s fourth quartet, offering a taste of that other great cycle of 20th-century string quartets. Their second show is tonight at 7:30, also at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall, featuring Shostakovich’s eighth and by far most popular quartet — it should be a good one.