Wigmore Hall, London
Listening to the Pacifica Quartet playing Shostakovich is to be reminded just how complex and sometimes baffling his string quartets can be. Containing some of the 20th century's most searching music, they are sometimes construed as private utterances in contrast to the more public statements of the symphonies. But they also constitute a drastic and carefully considered reappraisal of the potentials and limits of the genre itself – and they don't always yield their secrets easily.
The Pacificas have just completed the second half of their Wigmore cycle. Having caught two of the three concerts (the ninth and 10th quartets on Monday, the 14th and 15th three days later), I was struck by the sharpness of their characterisations: their aggressive, occasionally abrasive way with the ninth, with its energetic, fugal finale, gave way to something warmer and richer for the almost symphonic formalities of the 10th. Yet, as so often with Shostakovich, surfaces can be deceptive, and the sudden shrillness of the 10th's scherzo lingered in the memory long after the rest of it had gracefully ebbed away.
The Pacificas employed a more fragile, less opulent tone for the 14th and 15th, which, in different ways, are confrontations with mortality. The 14th rarely allows the four instrumentalists to play together, as elegant sequences of solos, duets and trios lead us imperceptibly towards one of the most disorienting finales ever composed. And we are at the limits of experience in the 15th, with its six slow movements, all in the oppressive key of F flat minor, and all expressing a numbed sense of finality, except for the central Intermezzo – when panic sets in, briefly but terrifyingly. That it made for deeply uncomfortable listening was a measure of the greatness of the Pacifica performance. Outstanding.
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