Since 1994, the Pacifica Quartet has earned a reputation as one of our finest chamber ensembles.
On Tuesday evening, it confirmed much of that status for the avid Buffalo audience, starting with Beethoven's Quartet in F, Op. 18, No. 1. There is much here that this quartet obviously owes to its forebears, Haydn and Mozart, as in the jaunty Scherzo and the roller-coaster rides of the Finale, which Pacifica tended to overplay.
But there are also moments when Beethoven is cruising in new expressive realms. The first movement's germinal theme is a true unifying device, being repeated no less than 104 times. But in the slow movement, Beethoven achieved a depth of expression forecasting the extreme profundity he would achieve in other adagios during his 27 remaining years.
The artists played this music with deep pensiveness but perhaps a bit too much drama at times, as though disregarding the Haydn-Mozart heritage. Stylistically they seemed to play Op. 18 No. 1 as though it was one of the later "Rasoumovsky" quartets. The quartet inappropriately got the ride of its life.
Shostakovich's 1964 Quartet No. 10 in A-Flat was the centerpiece and, for this listener, the high point of the program. Learned observers have disagreed on the emotional tone of this quartet, some finding it optimistic, others tragic. Pacifica's performance did not try to tip it in either direction, but played it superbly, as written. What emerged was a wonderful musical journey from the ambiguous but slightly uneasy opening Andante through the "furioso" second movement that seemed a natural outgrowth of the first.
The quite-brief Adagio was undergirded by the steadiness of its passacaglia form and led directly into the surprisingly dance-like Finale, where references to earlier material both unified the work and made the logical progression into ever-quieter regions seem like an organic returning, full circle, to the music's starting point.
Pacifica's performance thrust nothing at us, but made every step of the way so easy to follow.
The concert ended with Schumann's 1842 Quartet in A minor, Op. 41 No. 1, which struck me as an anticlimax. Schumann was much more at home writing for piano or voice, and this quartet needs everything going for it to come across effectively.
The Pacifica presented the first movement's winsome second theme charmingly, the broad outlines of the Adagio were well drawn, and the wonderful pianissimo passage at the end of the Finale was truly arresting, for the most part they applied a lot of energy but didn't succeed in raising Schumann's music above the level of perfunctory.
As an encore they offered the Pizzicato from Bartok's Quartet No. 4, which was a decidedly upbeat conclusion.
Presented by the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, Tuesday evening in the Mary Seaton Room of Kleinhans Music Hall.