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Surrounded By Cryptic Glpyhs

New York
Grace Rainey Auditorium, Metropolitan Museum of Art
10/24/2009 -  
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Quartet No. 19 in C Major, K. 465
Leos Janácek: Quartet No. 2, “Intimate Letters”
Johannes Brahms: Quartet in A Minor, Opus 51, No. 2

Pacifica Quartet: Simin Ganatra, Sibbi Bernhardsson (Violins), Masumi Per Rostad (Viola), Brandon Vamos (Cello)

The Pacifica Quartet (© Anthony Parmelee)

An unheralded bonus of concerts in the Grace Rainey Auditorium, adjacent to the Egyptian Section of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is that–when the guards aren’t looking–you can study the wonders of Old, Late and Alexandrian Egypt, the reconstructed tombs, mummified royalty and their favorite art objects.

Next to the Egyptian room, just opposite the Auditorium, is “Silk and Bamboo”, a fine display of Chinese musical objects and films, possibly to coincide with Carnegie Hall’s three weeks of music by Chinese musicians.

Last night, though, added to the ideo-glyphs of China and the hieroglyphs of Egypt were the Czech glyphs from Leoš Janácek, played by the formidable Pacifica String Quartet in their first of three concerts at the Met Museum

The 60-ish composer, reveling in his love of a girl almost one-third his age, wrote the most dazzling and prolific operas, orchestral and chamber works in his last decade, ending with the Seond Quartet. And while it can stand on its own, Janácek’s intimacy is revealed–in codes, fragments, memories and jagged pictures of an almost inconceivable joy.

Reading the score of the Second Quartet is a frustrating experience, since Janácek starts and stops, cuts into melodies with sudden changes, begins a folkish deance and immediately jolts into funereal utterings, before starting another dance. Yet it doesn’t ramble. Janácek makes his points directly, the only problem being that we don’t know what those points are.

It takes a special ensemble to make sense of “Intimate Letters”, to turn the cryptic musical glyphs into lucent messages. The Pacifica Quartet has the fluency and confidence–but above all, it has the youth–to make the Janácek come to life. Their technique is so sure that literal spontaneity is impossible. But they are hardly over-fastidious, changing tempos with alacrity when demanded.

The motto theme which opens the work has different timbre each time it is played. The sometimes shadowy phrasing come ot in the sunlight with very open volumes. The Pacifica Quartet transforms the subtitle’s “Intimate” into incisive and direct. And yes, it is still a patchwork, almost anarchic. But played with such passionate enthusiasm, those cryptic messages at least seem to have the potential for communicating.

The Pacifica Quartet is fairly young, and their renown has recently come with recordings of Elliott Carter’s complete quartets. Yet their enthusiastic playing hardly avoids the classics, and they began with a good Mozart.

The 19th Quartet, though, needs more than good playing. Like the Janácek, Mozart’s dynamics are sudden and striking, the contrasts different than anything of Mozart in this period. With good sense, the Pacifica played the mysterious exposition once–a repeat would have dulled the sunny development. But their playing, while convincing, and transparent, missed the vigor which enhances every measure. The finale was a delight, with First Violin Simin Ganartra singing merrily away, leading the ensemble.

From the last century to the 18th, the Pacifica finished with the highly romantic, problem-free 19th Century Brahms A Minor Quartet. The key is deceiving, for this is a joyous, warm work, and Pacifica played it with melodic richness. Older ensembles emphasized the pauses and retardations, but Pacifica went all out to bring the elegiac delight to the first two movements, with the fiery finales.

That wasn’t all, though. Pacifica showed a deeper side with a doleful Beethoven encore – a preview of this Resident Quartet’s next concert in January.

The Pacifica Quartet

Harry Rolnick



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