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"We can see who are the dedicated chamber music lovers here," said Masumi Per Rostad, violist of the award-winning Pacifica String Quartet at the opening of their concert in snowy Raleigh. The thin applause from the 40 or so attendees who braved the miserable weather was enthusiastic but hollow in a nearly empty hall.
But those that came were well-rewarded. The Pacifica broke with tradition by performing two heavyweight works, instead of the usual Classical-Contemporary-Romantic trio, with the String Quartet Op. 131 by Beethoven and the Quintet in C Major by Schubert. In the latter work, violinists Simin Ganatra and Sibbi Berhardsson, violist Rostad and cellist Brandon Vamos were joined by Paul Katz, former cellist of the renowned - but now disbanded - Cleveland Quartet and a former teacher of Vamos.
The current preponderance of first-rate "young" quartets has, in general, introduced more vigor and less reserve into performance practices as evidenced Sunday afternoon. Especially in the Beethoven, Pacifica created an emotional roller-coaster between the alternating tempi of the movements and in the composer's deliberately tragic/comic effects. So many ensembles forget that Beethoven had a sense of humor, never more evident than in the fifth movement Presto of Op. 131. In its exaggerated dynamics, and even body language, the Pacifica played it for the laughs it deserves; the group was also able to turn on a dime, coming off the scherzo into the lachrymose Adagio with that single repeat in the minor of the final cadence of the presto.
Schubert's C major Quintet is a grim work, in which false joviality, rather than a sense of pure musical fun, plays an important role. When he composed the work, Schubert knew he was dying, concluding his short life in poverty and relative obscurity outside his small circle of friends and colleagues. The Quintet vacillates between eloquent self-pity, especially in the slow movement, and a kind of "musical denial" in which the final dance rondo theme is in c minor, rather than C major, and the final cadence is a jarring appoggiatura from d-flat to a unison C. In the second movement adagio Ganatra's sighs against Katz's pizzicato responses created a magical duet accompanied discreetly by the other players. The Quintet also played to the hilt the contrast between the boisterousness of the Scherzo and the painful lament of the Trio.
It has become increasingly common for a visiting artist to appear with an established quartet. In most cases, the visitor is a pianist, but when it is another string player, the practice brings variety to the repertoire and enables us to hear string quintets and sextets that are only infrequently heard live. Katz's presence as the second cellist in the Schubert gave the impression of the passing along of great art from generation to generation, to some degree mitigating the tragic ambience set by the composer.