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11.4.05

Ligeti with the Pacifica Quartet

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F. Mendelssohn, Complete String Quartets, Pacifica Quartet
In the second to last concert of the Freer Gallery's 2004–2005 season, the Cleveland Quartet Award- and Naumburg Award-winning Pacifica Quartet began their refreshing program with a well-played Mendelssohn String Quartet, op. 13. The opening Adagio - Allegro vivace shows already how very good and still underrated Mendelssohn's quartets are. Fortunately this is beginning to change. Complete Mendelssohn string quartet cycles on record (he wrote only six or seven, depending on whether a very, very early work is included) are no longer a rarity. In fact, the Pacifica Quartet just added one of their own on the Cedille label to the extant Emerson (DG), Talich (Caliope), Ysaÿe (Decca), Coull (Hyperion), and Leipzig (MDG) cycles.

While op. 13 is not of the depth that parts of the magnificent op. 80—a very special work in Mendelssohn's œuvre—contain, early opus numbers should never be cause for hesitation with this composer. The only juvenilia that are not worth repeated listening do not have opus numbers... and even those are still very fine. Sure enough, op. 13, composed at any rate when Felix was a mature composer of 18 already (by then he had already written the Octet and most of A Midsummer Night's Dream, offers beauty aplenty. It also has fugal elements in which the question "Ist es wahr" (Is it true?) pops up, a rather overt hint at Beethoven's fugal question of "Muss es sein" (Must it be?) in his last string quartet, op. 135.

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G. Ligeti, String Quartets, Hagen and LaSalle Quartets
The program offered Ligeti next, and to hear this composer's first string quartet is always worth running to the ticket counter. Even more so, when the tickets are free as they are at the Freer/Sackler Gallery's Bill and Mary Meyer Concert Series. Györgi Ligeti's quartet, named Métamorphoses nocturnes (well recorded by the Hagen Quartett on the DG 20/21 label) had the best imaginable ambassadors of his music in the Pacifica Quartet, who not only played the work with visible and audible engagement, enthusiasm, and skill but also had cellist Brandon Vamos introduce the work. He did so complete with musical examples of the theme, its many métamorphoses, and he pointed out the work's humor and explained the origin of its particular and peculiar Béla Bartók-inspired nocturnal sounds. Drawn in through this charming and informative help, many of the (more old than young) audience appreciated the quartet they might otherwise have dismissed as cacophonous modernism. That they delighted in it en masse was audible from the many genuine laughs and chuckles during the performance. If the quartet was a delight to hear, it was even better to hear it so well received. The Hungarian Embassy should foot the Pacifica Quartet's bill and ship them around the country on a Ligeti mission!

Ludwig van Beethoven's op. 131 was the second half's attraction and, as late Beethoven tends to be, all that was needed. The density and intensity of these five late string quartets are so great that their digestion takes time, is never quite complete, and often enough exhausting. They are works that you can't take too much of, but can't be without, either. For those who do not hear them at concerts often enough, there are many excellent recordings available. Current favorites of mine are the Takács performances (Decca), though the Emerson's, too, are brilliant with their icy and perfect rendition (DG). The Pacifica Quartet, meanwhile, performed splendidly also and brought out the opening Adagio's yearning and intertwined musical strands that would have done Messrs. Wagner and Mahler proud. The Allegro molto vivace was—appropriately enough—very animated, and their intonation, if not perfect, impressive. That they had fun making this music was visible and contributed to the unadulterated success of the concert.

The Pacifica Quartet is the resident Quartet at the University of Illinois, Urbana, and the University of Chicago. First and second violins are Simin Ganatra and Sibbi Bernardsson, Masumi Par Rostad mans the viola, and Brandon Vamos, as mentioned, wields the cello. The Freer's next and last concert features the Shanghai Quartet on the 20th of April.

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