Pacifica Quartet shakes the winter blues: Music@Menlo features elegant and absorbing ensemble

Pacifica Quartet has evolved over the years and have mastered the clarity of their performance.

Music@Menlo’s winter series, occasional concerts designed to keep the chamber music lover’s heart warm during the long months between editions of its summer festival, gave an especially choice concert Wednesday, Jan. 11, at the Menlo-Atherton Center for the Performing Arts.

The performers were the members of the Pacifica Quartet, the ensemble that enriched the 2009 summer festival with a cycle of Mendelssohn’s string quartets. This time they offered a more varied program of Beethoven, Shostakovich and Ravel.

This was a real connoisseur’s concert, something to delight anyone who enjoys chamber music. The performances had complete narrative clarity. Each section of every movement was simply shaped, straightforwardly and cleanly presented and — whenever possible — light and charming. Even someone unfamiliar with this music, who had come only out of curiosity over what could be so appealing about such esoteric music, could have been won over by this elegant and absorbing music.

The only thing impossible to say is which of the three pieces was the best. They were all the best.

Beethoven’s Quartet in B-flat, Op. 18, No. 6, is one of his early works, from a set announcing that here was a pupil of Haydn and follower of Mozart ready to produce a set of quartets like theirs, only with a little extra brusqueness that foreshadowed the craggy Beethoven to come. For most of this work, the Pacifica Quartet kept up that image of a shaggier Haydn. Cellist Brandon Vamos’ intense expressions and first violinist Simin Ganatra’s obvious delight in sweet passages were visual expressions of the combination of light elegance with intermittent bumps on display here.

The finale was different. This begins with a long Adagio passage tagged “melancholy” by Beethoven. In this performance, a tinge of that melancholy was heard even in the cheerful country dance that follows. All is not fun in this post-Haydn world, but it remains elegant.

The five movements of Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 3 in F, Op. 73, form a series of tableaus depicting the emotional impact of the onset through the aftermath of World War II. The opening scene of innocent cheerfulness could have come from the earlier movements of the Beethoven piece, while the final summation echoed the melancholia in Beethoven’s finale. The second movement, anticipating war, is the one that Pacifica played around with the most. It sounded cheeky rather than foreboding.

Only the remaining two movements, depicting the war itself as a violent scherzo and the aftermath as a tragic elegy, were as rough and harsh as Shostakovich intended. This was the only music like that in the concert. They demonstrated that the Pacifica Quartet has that language in its vocabulary too.

Ganatra drove Shostakovich’s frequent sliding glissandi forcefully through the work. Several solo passages for viola, a favorite instrument of the composer’s, were played by Masumi Per Rostad with an ideally suitable combination of earnestness and simplicity.

Ravel’s Quartet in F was his demonstration that his experimental impressionist style could be poured into classical forms. Unsurprisingly, the Pacifica Quartet preferred it dry rather than lush. Sections of the outer movements that are usually relaxed and indulgent were brisk and pragmatic here. The exotic passages of the slow movement, instead of being over-ripe, sounded astringent and weird, making Ravel a compatriot of Shostakovich. The pizzicato passages of the scherzo exploded, not so much with energy as with crisp precision.

The Pacifica Quartet has grown as an ensemble over the years. Back in 2009, I could hear the increased depth and subtlety in their Mendelssohn over the already fine recording they’d made of the set a few years earlier. Today’s Pacifica Quartet — still the same players over all this time — has evolved a greater unity of sound quality. They have mastered above all the clarity of its performance.

The final concert of Menlo’s winter series, on May 21, will feature clarinetist David Shifrin in Messiaen’s haunting “Quartet for the End of Time” and a new commission by Andy Akiho. This year’s summer festival will last for three weeks beginning July 15. Announcements of the program will be made in April.

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