Shostakovich • Weinberg: String Quartets
This Shostakovich cycle is turning out to be one of the most riveting of recent years, as the Pacificas demonstrate strong empathy with the contrasting emotional narratives of each work and probe well beneath the surface simplicity of some of the writing.
Their coupling of Shostakovich’s Quartets Nos 9-12 with Weinberg’s Sixth emphasises connections beyond the purely musical. Both composers were not only great friends, but proved inspirational to each other’s creative development. Indeed it was Weinberg who prompted Shostakovich to return to quartet writing in 1964, after having discarded several earlier attempts to compose a Ninth Quartet.
In playing the Ninth he finally composed, the Pacificas show an unerring sense of pacing in negotiating the tricky transitions of speed and character found in that work’s continuous multi-movement structure. In lesser hands its opening two movements can sound monochrome, but the Pacificas bring such a wealth of colour and imagination that many passages are heard in a completely new light: for instance, the wiry chromatic melodic line traced by the first violin in two passages of the second movement Adagio here conveys the requisite sense of eeriness with an almost suffocating feeling of introversion. Notice, too, how effectively the Pacificas disrupt this mood, moving almost seamlessly to the unbuttoned exuberance of the ensuing Allegretto.
There are similarly dramatic contrasts in the Pacificas’ highly charged, almost schizophrenic account of the Tenth. After the deep sense of unease conveyed in the first movement’s suppressed dynamics and disembodied sul ponticello passagework, the Allegretto furioso is delivered with relentless ferocity, making the mournful cello lament of the ensuing Adagio all the more poignant. Equally impressive is the Pacificas’ strong characterisation of the different sections of the 12th’s second movement, from the frenzied trills of the opening to the poignant cello soliloquies in the central Adagio. The closing bars, in which Shostakovich reinforces unequivocal D flat major chords against a painfully dissonant harmonic backdrop, can rarely have sounded more defiant and life-assertive.
The inclusion of Weinberg’s Sixth Quartet of 1946 makes this set even more enticing. It is without doubt one of the most striking of this composer’s quartets, and the Pacifica Quartet brilliantly negotiates its considerable technical hurdles, investing the music with conviction and blazing emotional intensity.