Pacifica Quartet @ Music Toronto Reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Thursday, December 9, 2010. Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto.

Surprise in musical performance can mean disappointment or new insight.  Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet is full of grief—personal and collective (in reference to mid 20th century war atrocities). Earlier versions by the Emerson and Borodin Quartets, for example, gave grief more bite. Last night in the Pacifica’s opening Largo we felt the langorous, quality of long-standing grief made transparent by time till it feels almost like a baroque lullaby. Interesting.

Simin Ganatra’s first violin did bite into the second linked movement with an astringent solo. Then there was a forceful interruption (though still characteristically syrupy) by the cello/viola duet of the ‘Shostakovich monogram’ theme. The Pacifica somehow highlighted the dissonant chording of the ‘Jewish melody’ from the composer’s Piano Trio in a unique, ear-opening way.  The passion they put into the ‘dance macabre’, was memorable, as was Masumi Per Rostad’s viola solo. The harmonies of the ensemble work in the fourth and fifth Largos was magically rich.

Jennifer Higdon’s 18 minute Voices,for string quartet (1993), in three movements, entitled: ‘Blitz’, ‘Soft Enlacing’, and ‘Grace’, depicts contrasting states of mind from highly agitated to serene. The lightweight abstractions of this work might have had more impact before, rather than following Shostakovich’s blockbuster.

The most delightful surprise of the evening was the lucidity of Pacifica’s account of Schumann’s very first string quartet, the A Minor, Op.41, No.1 (1842). They made it easy to track Schumann’s frequently impulsive,  shifting musical synatx.

Violinists Ganatra and Behrhardsson perform the contrapuntal fugal introduction that transforms into a lovely, fluid homophonic melody developed by the players in turn starting with the viola. The second violin sweetly introduces the subsidiary theme, followed by a surprisingly passionate development and quiet ending.

The Scherzo flanks a floaty, faeryish trio with an outer pair of cavalry charges. Brandon Vamos’ cello opens the way for the pleasingly schmaltzy first violin love-ballad theme of the Adagio. After a romantically stormy interlude, the melody passes to the cello for some outstanding treatment before the movement rounds back to the opening recitative.

The viola gets Schumann’s final movement off to a running start and builds to an exciting climax. The Pacifica show their mastery over tempo and tone as they follow Schumann into a slow-mo bagpipe drone break before bursting back into the fast lane and driving home.

The final surprise: they dropped the bows and played an encore with their fingers—the 3 minute Allegretto pizzicato from Bartok’s Fourth String Quartet. Very cool.

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