Coping with crisisIf one had to choose a single “WOW!” moment from this Pacifica Quartet‘s performance of works by Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel and Dmitri Shostakovich, it would have been the final movement of Hensel’s 1834 E-flat String Quartet, the only composition in that genre that she wrote. Marked Allegro molto vivace, it was played just about as “molto vivace” as is humanly possible, its perpetual-motion 16th notes (sometimes in perfectly-in-tune thirds between the two violinists) being undergirded by octaves in those two instruments while the violist and cellist took over the torrential rapids. This was indeed a spectacular reading of Hensel’s long-neglected music, which wasn’t published until 1988.

The opening Adagio ma non troppo showed Hensel’s music as harmonically and formally less strict than that of her brother, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, who took her to task (in a loving-brotherly manner) for her musical wanderings. The ensuing Allegretto confirmed my suspicion that something was awry in the microphone placements because Brandon Vamos‘ cello sound was on the rough side and also at a higher volume than his colleagues. The group handled the dialog-like piano and forte passages convincingly in the third-movement Romanze, the quartet’s longest movement by far.

Why was this music not published for some 150 years after Hensel composed it? The easy answer is: because she was a woman. Despite what one of the post-concert commentators said, she had received the same musical training as her brother Felix, four years her junior. Those interested in exploring Hensel’s life and music may turn to her biography, written by Duke University’s R. Larry Todd, whose biographies of Hensel and Mendelssohn have established him as perhaps the world’s leading authority on these brilliant siblings and their music. (Fanny Hensel: The Other Mendelssohn. Oxford Univ. Press, 2010.)

The Pacifica followed this 19th century masterwork with one from the mid-20th century, the Quartet No. 3, in F, Op. 73, by Dimitri Shostakovich. This composer’s only opus dating from 1946, it echoes the intensity and tragedy of the WWII years and was, according to accounts by members of the Beethoven Quartet, who premiered the work, also a deeply personal expression by Shostakovich, whose music so often reflected his own life struggles. In this 77th anniversary year of this music’s creation, the Pacifica’s musicians gave us a compelling performance. Their knowledge of Shostakovich’s music has been shaped by their performances of all fifteen of the Russian master’s quartet cycles, of which nine were written in his later years when he felt free of political restrictions and/or censure.

While Hensel opened her quartet with a movement which wandered far from its supposed tonal center; the opening Allegretto of Shostakovich’s Opus 73 is even more a tonal and temporal thicket through which the Pacifica wandered with aplomb, from each member asserting “I’ve got the tune!” to the perfectly-delivered assertive pizzicato strokes which close the movement. Following the often-muted Moderato con moto, with glissandi ornamenting the melodic lines, came what Vamos called “one of the most violent things we play,” the Allegro non troppo movement which is the terrifying center of this music’s conjuring of the terror through which the composer had just lived. Its intensity was matched by that of the players, who expressed their understanding of Shostakovich’s emotions through the vehicles of their acknowledged virtuosity.

The 4th and 5th movements follow without pause, the Adagio likely a requiem for those killed in the war. The Pacifica’s reading of the score’s changing tempi and dynamics leading into the final Moderato were superb, as were their interweaving solo lines as that final movement led to its closing morendo – dying away – as if Shostakovich were saying, “It’s over, but what was the point of it all?”

The Pacifica’s four members (violinists Simin Ganatra and Austin Hartman, violist Mark Holloway, and cellist Vamos) did not agree on such things as the form of their scores (printed music vs computer screen), music stands (solid vs folding) or seating (chairs vs a piano “artist’s bench”), but they agreed on the important thing: the music, of which each is a master and of which all together are masters. As a Star Wars character might remark, “The Force is strong in this Quartet!” The group’s dynamics will undoubtedly change when Ganatra leaves the group at the end of this season in order to have more time for her teaching responsibilities at Indiana University.

After the music, there was a question-and-answer session in which members of the listening and viewing audiences were able to pose questions to the performers.

Note: Giving credit where credit is due: the Pacifica Quartet concert was produced by CameraMusic and the Chamber Music Society of Detroit, and the live stream was jointly marketed to the North Carolina market by Chamber Music Raleigh.