Pacifica Quartet and Wu Han wow at Mandell Hall

By Jason Sherwin

Pacifica String Quartet with Wu Han, piano

Mendelssohn, String Quartets Op. 12, 44/1

Brahms, Piano Quintet

Mandel Hall, January 10, 2003

On Friday, January 10, the Pacifica Quartet, artists-in-residence at the University, and pianist Wu Han kicked off the winter season of the Chicago Presents series with a splendid concert of chamber works from Mendelssohn and Brahms. They opened the concert with Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in E flat, which is catalogued as Mendelssohn’s first string quartet (although the A major String Quartet was written two years before when the composer was only 18). Within the scope of music history, Mendelssohn’s string quartets are seen as the answer to the late Beethoven string quartets that raised many questions (not to mention classical eyebrows) about tonal harmony. The first violin plays a prominent role throughout the piece and Simin Ganatra did an exquisite job of making it appear so. Known for their acute sensitivity to one another’s playing, the group’s cohesion shone through most dramatically during the Canzonetta-Allegretto. After the energy dissipated from the E flat String Quartet, the Pacifica performed another beauty–the D major String Quartet (Op. 44, No.1).

The second half of the concert was devoted to the Brahms’s Piano Quintet (Op. 34). Brahms was his own harshest critic, and for this reason he was known to rework many of his own pieces several times over and in some cases destroy them completely. He originally wrote the piece for a string quintet. After getting lukewarm criticism from the string music critic Joseph Joachim, Brahms reworked the piece into a two-piano sonata (Op. 34b). Clara Schumann suggested an orchestration of this version in 1863 and Brahms finished the piece for piano and string quartet in the summer of 1864 at the age of 31. The original string quintet version was later destroyed by Brahms, along with God knows how much other music, so we are left with a piece that shines more brightly than Wu Han’s concert outfit from Friday night. The addition of this radiant guest artist to the Pacifica enhanced the playing of the quartet, if that is possible, and provided the audience with a unique chamber music experience. The inherent motivic development in Brahms’s music allowed each member of the quartet to shine more than in the Mendelssohn. Brandon Vamos, the cellist, rose to the occasion during the Brahms, his bass line working in conjunction with, or, in some cases, opposition to, the piano, providing the harmonic underpinning that is so important to the music of Brahms. It was Wu Han’s technical brilliance on the piano and keen ear for the strings that made the piece a true piano quintet. The most impressive part of her performance was her ear for the other players. It is very easy with the piano opened to full stick, as it was Friday night, to drown out the strings, especially with the thick low chords of Brahms’s piano writing.

The members of the Pacifica Quartet have outdone themselves once again. They will tackle the complete string quartets of two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Elliott Carter on February 21.