Review: Pacifica Quartet plays Shostakovich

Drowning in a sea of buzz, hype, and hyperbole, I somehow never paid much heed to the Pacifica Quartet. And so, Sunday, seeing them for the first time in a concert of all-Shostakovich, though I was prepared for greatness, they exceeded my expectations and blew me away. I don't see string quartets too often (although twice this week), so it had been a while since I had seen one remotely as good--if ever. On my old scale to 10, they went to 11--raising the bar to the misfortune of all future string quartets I see.

This concert was the 4th of 5 concerts, over the course of which the Pacifica will play Shostakovich's entire quartet output. This concert contained nos. 7, 10, 11, 12.
Shostakovich: When we last left our hero, he was writing the piece that would save his life: the 5th Symphony, which the CSO played a few weeks ago. The 5th comes from the period in his life in which his fate was the most uncertain. By 1960, when he wrote the 7th quartet, Stalin was long gone (dead but surely not forgotten) and DSCH was sitting pretty. While the 5th Symphony was written to please the censors with patriotic bombast, the 7th quartet expresses something more personal: grief over the death of his first wife, Nina Varzarin.  4 years later, he wrote his 10th quartet, which follows a relatively traditional formal plan and sounds as if Shostakovich is writing music for its own sake, dedicating it to a fellow composer: Mieczyslaw Vainberg. The 11th comes after the death of the 2nd violinist of the Beethoven Quartet: Shostakovich's go-to quartet. The piece is almost "about" the 2nd violinist, as if Shostakovich is giving the new 2nd violinist material to indoctrinate him into the group. The 12th quartet is dedicated to the then-still-living 1st violinist of the Beethoven Quartet, Dmitri Mikhailovich Tsïganov. It is based on the number 12 and incorporates dodecaphonic elements.
The quartet of quartets encompasses quite a range of emotion, much of it quite introspective with profusions of extroversion. The Pacifica handled the introversion with myriad gradations of quiet and yet exploded--like in the 2nd movement of #10--with writhing, full-body aggression. No matter how infinitely quiet they played, they maintained a succulent, radiant tone, infusing each note with impassioned intensity whether great or small. They blended their tone perfectly but also differentiated themselves when necessary, effortlessly coming to the fore and receding in an organically evolving game of give and take.
The concert proved to be a lot of Shostakovich--just enough or too much?--and left the audience with mental echoes of his quintessential motives and rhythms and an impending sense of doom. Weighty but exquisite.
Their next concert, on February 27th, is the final installment of Shostakovich's quartets: 13, 14, 15. It's worth the effort.
Here's a more nuanced review in the NYTimes.
More info about Shostakovich's quartets.

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