Carter: Two Fragments for String Quartet
Janacek: String Quartet No. 2, (Intimate Letters)
Carter: String Quartet No. 5
Beethoven: String Quartet No. 16 in F Major, Op. 135
The last, but not least, stop of my chamber music mini-marathon last week was at the Upper East Side's 92Y on Wednesday night, where I joined a large crowd of regulars and others to attend the highly regarded Pacifica Quartet's long-overdue debut there. The program was interestingly dedicated to the "Last Words" of a trio of widely different and ever-intriguing composers that included the American Elliott Carter, with whom the quartet had a long and fruitful relationship, the Czech Leo Janacek and the German Ludwig van Beethoven. Although the concept may seem a bit morbid at first, and was not exactly accurate in the case of Carter, the works to be performed were certainly appealing enough to promise a totally satisfying musical evening.
Although they were far from being his last piece – Carter would still remain amazingly productive for more than a decade before dying at 103 – and in fact precluded his late style, "Two Fragments for String Quartet" turned out to be a deceptively inconspicuous, yet eventually powerful opener on Wednesday night. Starting as mysterious and understated, it quickly became more assertive in its relentless inventiveness, but still kept a resolutely low profile.
There was, on the other hand, nothing understated in Janacek's "Intimate Letters", which exploded with all the desperate passion that the old composer felt towards a much younger, and very married, woman. By turns burning with obsessive desire and exuding pure tenderness, and plenty of resigned and not so resigned frustration too, the hopelessly beleaguered composer wrote one of his most intense and personal works. Janacek's troubled mind found the perfect outlet in the Pacifica Quartet, whose performance was downright commanding, deeply emotional and widely expressive, never letting the off-kilter notes subvert, but rather have them contribute to the overall beauty of the musical statement.
After intermission, we were back in the concert hall for what had to be the tour de force of the evening. Carter's dazzling String Quartet No. 5 being notorious for its complex structure, the musicians had to spend countless hours going against their natural instincts and "trying to play not together", as explained by second violin Sibbi Bernhardsson. All the dedicated practice has obviously paid off as the quartet played with hard-earned assurance, insightful precision, but also communicative enjoyment.
After Janacek's emotional turmoil and Carter's technical challenges, we finally got to relax and revel in the full glow and uncomplicated playfulness of Beethoven's String Quartet No. 16. The last substantial piece the aging master ever wrote, it still bursts with life and creativity. The Pacifica Quartet was clearly happy to finally let loose while still making the most of their remarkable kills, and they delivered a beautifully radiant performance of the sunny composition.
The mood stayed totally uplifted for the much appreciated encore, which was a short, but thoroughly electrifying "Four for Tango", an appropriately late work by Argentine Astor Piazzola. The perfect ending to the perfect evening.