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Pacifica Quartet: The Soviet Experience Volume 1

img  Tobias Fischer

In one respect, the curtain drawn around the Soviet Union after the second World War really was made of iron: Filtering out only what the leaders in Moscow would allow to pass through, it blocked outside views into the nation's creative developments as effectively as a wall made of steel. And so, with Stravinsky living in American exile and Prokofiev having passed away, the position of Dmitri Shostakovich as the country's ambassador of music remained almost undisputed from the 50s onwards. But it goes without saying that, underneath the radar of Western medial perception and the phalanxes of officially sanctioned composers, there was a versatile generation of artists continuing Russia's legendary tradition of sonic inventiveness – and of course, Shostakovich knew about them. Either because some of them had, like Nikolai Miaskovsky, been a long-term subject of professional respect and a friend, evoked admiration and tender affections (Galina Ustvolskaya) or because he maintained collegial ties with them, as in the case of Moses Weinberg. As trivial as this acknowledgment may seem, it does put into question the main postulate about his seminal oeuvre for string quartet: That it was conceived in perfect isolation, spoke of his private concerns only and was the work of a man at odds with his time, contemporaries and country.

This realisation of a yet to be explored diversity behind the increasingly iconic figure of Shostakovich is at the heart of the Pacifica Quartet's Soviet Experience series. On a total of four double-CD-sets on Chicago-based Cedille, one of the hardest-working ensembles on the international chamber music scene will juxtapose the entire Shostakovich string quartet cycle with works by select contemporaries, thereby allowing for contrast, contextualisation and comparison. With this conceptual masterstroke, the Pacificas have, almost literally overnight, cleverly carved out a niche for themselves on a seemingly saturated market and assertively put themselves on a map crowded with luminaries and legends: The Beethoven- and Borodin-Quartets, who had the benefit of closely working with the composer. The Emerson Quartet – whose renditions were completely taped live on stage – and the Fitzwilliams Quartet, who released the first integral recording and came with the distinction by Shostakovich himself of representing „the favourite performers of his quartets“. Or more recent efforts by the Mandelring Quartet, which stood out for boldly differing dynamics and tempi, thereby opening up a new round of debate and controversy. As emotionally engaging and intellectually gripping as these projects may have been, The Soviet Experience doesn't just offer music, but historical insights to boot – an anything but trivial benefit.

Which is not to say that the music didn't matter here. The performances were carved out and recorded in sync with a concert cycle of the same works at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, where the Pacificas are now into their third season as successors in residency to the Guarneri Quartet . This correspondence between the live situation and studio sessions has resulted in a refined melange of timbres and strokes – one half vodka, one half sweetly sugared black tea, so to speak. It has lent their interpretation a certain elegance of form and clarity of texture, which even manifests itself in the more wild and furious passages. But naturally, it works best on the slow, subtle and spiritual movements: Their rendition of the sixth quartet's „Lento“, for example, a passacaglia of majestic pull and heartwrenching intimacy, gracefully and all but imperceptibly builds up into a fluently shifting acoustic mandala and back into silence again. The moment Brandon Vamos's plaintive solo cello is joined by his colleagues, within rapid succession of each other and on ascending pitches, feels as though the entire emotive area of one's brain were suddenly washed over with wave after wave of contradictory sentiments. The inherent conflicts are not so much resolved as lived-through: As though the instrumental lines were drawn in glistening icicles against the backdrop of an autumnal dawn, the music gradually disappears into darkness, melting away, but leaving behind a small pool of memories and a lingering scent of nostalgia.

The period covered by the Pacifica Quartet here is a decisive one for Shostakovich and falls precisely in between the inquisitiveness of his early quartets and the experimental tendencies of his later ones. In sofar, they are representative for his entire body of work for the format and therefore an ideal gauge against which to measure Miaskovsky's thirteenth string quartet, written two years prior to Shosktakvich's fifth and just a few months before the great teacher and composer's death. It sees him carefully balancing off officially demanded neo-classicism against his thirst for discovery, working with delicate experiments and the occasional shock moment embedded into an outwardly traditional setting. In no way do the Pacifica Quartet treat this work, frequently considered one of the finest entries in Miaskovsky's catalogue of chamber music, with less respect than Shostakovich's: The opening „Moderato“ bathes in bittersweet rays of light, the „Presto Fantastico“ is a bipolar construction veering between gypsy exultation and spooky inwardness and the final fourth movement a subdued and consoling conclusion.

And yet, placed right behind Shostakovich's seminal eighth quartet, it feels strangely pale in comparison. This isn't so much a question of craftsmanship as it is of imagination: Each of the Shostakovich contributions here contains at least one constructional surprise (the seamless journey of the eighth, the seventh' establishing of smaller group units within the quartet) or instantly recognisable hook (the intrusive patterns at the beginning of the fifth, the epigrams at the end of each movement of the sixth), which render it instantly recognisable. Shostakovich's string quartets may not have been born in isolation, one could say, but they are very much one of their kind. As such, The Soviet Experience may open up the iron curtain of history just a little bit. But in doing so, it may ironically also make Dmitri Shostakovich's singular  position more obvious than ever before.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Pacifica Quartet
Homepage: Cedille Records

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