Pacifica Quartet takes its time to cohere but triumphs by end of the night

By Malkah Bressler

This past Friday, the University of Chicago Presents saw its last Pacifica Quartet concert of the 2004-2005 season. The concert began with Beethoven’s Quartet in D major, Op. 18, No. 3, and Hindemith’s String Quartet, Op. 22. They were joined in the second half by the renowned Menahem Pressler for Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-flat, Op. 44.

At the outset, their sound was regrettably too light and superficial to capture the essence of this piece, in which Beethoven’s rebellion from classical form and style started to surface. The piece seemed to play itself, and the hints of exquisite intonation only served to throw into sharper light the quartet’s apparent inability to delve into the piece. A glass-like rendition with pale ghosts of expression resulted. The second movement, however, presented something of a deeper consciousness, and the seamless major and minor transitions within the piece turbulently depicted Beethoven’s commencing dissatisfaction with the extant and his never-ending quest for the ineffable. Toward the end of the movement, the first violinist, Simin Ganatra, was the pivotal figure in maintaining the contrapuntal cohesion—she wove each player’s line into the overall texture, one at a time, with delightfully coaxing melodic motifs. The players danced with the movement that followed, creating a veritable web of intermingling notes and sounds. The closing fourth movement was first a conversation of the upper strings to the lower strings, with a series of quintessentially Beethoven-esque surprise non-endings. It was handled coolly by all of the members—they created lines of expectation, expertly drawing out the tension to the point of excruciation before dashing effortlessly through the resolution.

After a brief pause, the quartet launched into the Hindemith. Entering the first movement with velvety stealth, the quartet quickly changed moods, becoming stringent and forceful in turn. Although the first violin solo was on occasion tremulous and uncertain, the melodic line did move forward with a specific end. The second movement began with a strong attack—and although mainly acting as accompanist, violist Masumi Per Rostad exhibited an uncommon and refreshing sense of artistic awareness. We were made acutely aware of the importance of the oft-scorned accompaniment line. And expressive patience apparently has its just rewards—during the third movement, he had a lovely solo opportunity. Although the part was hardly demanding in conventional virtuosity, Rostad made each successive note interact both physically and metaphysically with the others, encouraging similar dialogue between the rest of the quartet. The quartet responded with an equivalent, even superior ardor—the movement ended with the group singing as one. The cellist in the fourth movement exhibited his technical brilliance through a lovely solo, and here it was the turn of the rest of the quartet to exhibit their excellent accompanist skills. However, during the fifth movement, the ethereal playing could not mask a distinct lack of expression; the piece sounded as if it were a flat, translucent surface. The ending, however, was eloquent testimony to the quartet’s brilliance. They ended suspensefully—and managed to hold feeling even a few minutes after the music itself had ended.

After the intermission, the quartet returned with Menahem Pressler and performed the Schumann quintet. Pressler presented an interesting aura on the stage. Not completely overwhelming, yet not content to blend in with the group, he seemed to flit between virtuosic pianist and polite quartet compatriot. As with the Beethoven, the quintet began shakily, with rather ungraceful turns to Pressler and overt eye contact. They were still getting accustomed to each other. As the first movement continued, however, this changed, and a smoother debate between instruments ensued. The pianist seemed especially aware of the choppy camaraderie, and attempted to consciously bring everyone together through his various gestures of accompaniment including hand-waving and conducting. The second movement continued in the spirit of the first, and through the various solos, the strengths of the players became manifest. Sibbi Bernhardsson played a charming solo mainly in the lower register, reminding the audience that violins can play low notes well. Ganatra played a hopeful theme, and as the piece moved towards anxiety, everyone contributed. The ending itself was wonderful—light but skittish. The third movement, a scherzo was a showcase for the virtuoso pianism of Pressler; his hands practically glided over the keyboard, ever aware of the other players. This expressive nature of the pianist was compounded during the fourth when an especially moving solo moved him to slide his arms sweepingly over the quartet.

The quartet played one encore, the slow movement from the Brahms quintet, and although not as effective as the Schumann, it was rendered with gravity and grace, ending the concert on a note of satisfaction. Having never witnessed the Pacifica play with an addition, it was easy to see that they are a close-knit group. They seemed to be initially uncomfortable with the addition of a new member, but they rallied well. Although they took their time about cohesion, they eventually caused the piece to flow very well. The last concert this past Friday night, although it had its moments, was not completely satisfying; the quartet was technically sound but lacked the expressive quality so rare and so desired for intimate group performances. However, they did demonstrate their potential for brilliance, and next year’s concert series promises to be extremely interesting.