Pacifica Quartet, Wigmore Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

The Pacifica Quartet, founded in the US a decade ago, have taken their time arriving at the Wigmore Hall, while garnering residencies and praise all over the place - not least for their recent Edinburgh Festival cycle of all five string quartets of Elliott Carter.

The Pacifica Quartet, founded in the US a decade ago, have taken their time arriving at the Wigmore Hall, while garnering residencies and praise all over the place - not least for their recent Edinburgh Festival cycle of all five string quartets of Elliott Carter. But this intelligently planned Wigmore debut, demonstrating the impact of late Beethoven on the very young Mendelssohn and the very old Carter, proved them well worth the wait.

Mendelssohn's String Quartet in A minor, Op 13 (1827), composed aged 18, is, admittedly, just as astonishing for its originality of cyclic form and mastery of quartet textures as for its absorption of Beethoven, who had only just died and whose late quartets were generally regarded as incomprehensible. But this poses a dilemma for performers: whether to emphasise the mercurial youthfulness of Mendelssohn's actual age, or the mature mastery of the composer he had already become.

Within bars, it was evident the Pacifica Quartet inclined to the latter approach, bringing a rounded fullness of sound, a wide range of dynamics and no end of detailed nuance to the score (doubtless developed in their recent recording of all six Mendelssohn quartets). Did one occasionally hanker after a little more edginess, roughness, even, to mitigate the ripe cultivation of it all?

In any case, the Pacifica's focus and bloom proved a positive asset in Carter's String Quartet No 5 (1995), which we are more used to hearing given with febrile incisiveness by the Arditti Quartet. This last of Carter's cycle - or perhaps one should say latest, since he is still composing busily at only days short of his 96th birthday - comprises six short character-movements linked by passages artfully composed to sound like intervening rehearsal sessions. It was difficult to imagine the expressive potential of the movements more fully realised, or the human give and take of the links more humorously dramatised than here.

If Carter's music, at best, seems to convey directly how the mind works in its forming and dissolving of ideas, he surely learned this from Beethoven. And not least, the latter's near 40-minute String Quartet in C sharp minor, Op 131 (1825-6) - an unbroken sweep of seven movements, including one of his greatest fugues, profoundest set of variations, most tragic finales and so much else.

This can sometimes trap performers into a kind of expressive overkill, punching out every sforzato, and it was their relative moderation, without loss of vital spontaneity, that enabled the Pacifica to grip the sequence as a whole - and especially the uncanny amalgam of elements whimsical and serene in the extended variations - almost to the end. And if they failed quite to clinch the driven climax of the finale, these are nonetheless performers of real insight and skill that the Wigmore can welcome back any time.

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