Three B’s… With a Twist

 

Revisiting the Three B’s: Pacifica Quartet Makes Its Logan Debut

 At Performance Hall, University of Chicago

The Pacifica Quartet, Artists-in-Residence at the University of Chicago, gave their first concert in Performance Hall at the University’s recently-opened Logan Center for the Performing Arts this afternoon.  The program was billed as “Three B’s… With a Twist”; the “twist” was a partial change, with two of the so-called Three B’s of Classical Music, Bach and Brahms, replaced by Boccherini and Bartok, but the third, Beethoven, left intact.  The quartet gave a remarkable performance in this first installment of its three-part series this season in the Logan Center, even if I, for one, was not entirely impressed by the “revision of the Three B’s.”

Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805) is one of those Classical-era composers who wrote prolifically and is now nearly completely neglected in the concert hall.  Today’s program began with his String Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 58, No. 2 – one of the last of the 91(!) he wrote.  If this one is indicative of Boccherini’s best output, his obscurity is understandable – this is pleasant, lightweight music, very much dominated by the first violin, with a lot of frills and no memorable material.  The Pacifica Quartet played it for charm rather than unwonted drama; they were clearly enjoying themselves in spite of the piece’s shortcomings and never lacked for gusto – particularly in the breezy finale.

The program moved from the Rococo to the twentieth century with an abrupt jolt in the form of Bela Bartok’s sixth and final string quartet, which dates back to 1939 and is thoroughly of its era.  Bartok’s quartets are often acclaimed as among the finest since Beethoven’s; they are full of the eerie textures and alternate bowing techniques that Beethoven experimented with in his late quartets.  The problem with such a comparison is that unlike Bartok, Beethoven used these effects as supplements to his rich musical ideas, and it is the musical ideas of the late Beethoven quartets that make them actually more difficult to appreciate – and ultimately rewarding – than the “difficult” Bartok quartets.  Ugliness is not the same thing as difficulty arising from musical complexity and depth; the relentlessly abrasive dissonance of Bartok – in his quartets, at any rate – is ultimately as one-dimensional as the dull Gallant politeness of Boccherini, and certainly much more unpleasant.  But Shostakovich, for instance – and even perhaps Bartok himself in the Concerto for Orchestra – is able to squeeze a bit more of a real emotional range out of the modern idiom than Bartok in his Sixth Quartet.  (It’s about time the classical music world stopped pushing the ability to enjoy ugliness as a mark of sophistication; surely this contributes to the perception of classical music as pretentious!)  The Pacifica Quartet is devoted to modern music, however; and the polish, refinement, and musicality they brought to Bartok made his aesthetic about as easy to swallow as one could imagine.

The quartet also shined in Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132, which is, unlike the Boccherini, substantial; unlike the Bartok, beautiful; and, unlike both, a multifaceted masterwork.  The piece is best known for the haunting and sublime slow movement that stands at its center, the “Heiliger Dankgesang” (“Holy Song of Thanks to the Godhead from a Convalescent, in the Lydian mode” – it was written after Beethoven’s recovery from a serious illness); but that is itself enclosed in a vast five-movement structure, bookended by an opening movement and finale of tragic proportions.  The performance did full justice to the piece’s great scope, with the Pacifica achieving an admiral blend of vigor and lyrical sensitivity, which is essential to much great music but especially contrast-driven late Beethoven; occasional slips in intonation were negligible in light of both their rarity and the grand sweep the players imparted to the piece as a whole.  The coda to the first movement was thrilling, almost terrifying; the slow movement was poignantly intense without a trace of affected sentimentality; the music sang throughout.  If anything, the buoyant march that brings the audience down to earth after the time-stopping slow movement was attacked too harshly, as were points in the finale; but even if these were excesses, they were excusable in such a flexible, disciplined, and cumulatively powerful reading.  I wholeheartedly recommend hearing the Pacifica Quartet play Beethoven whenever the opportunity arises, regardless of whether the rest of the program appeals.

Highly recommended.

Samuel Wigutow

Date Reviewed: November 3, 2012