I remain consistently jealous of Jack's musical adventures in New York but I'm also consistently bad at mentioning many of the fine concert-going opportunities that come up in Portland. Monday and yesterday I caught a pair of remarkable shows in town by the Pacifica Quartet, remarkable in the literal sense that they bear remarking: The most intriguing musical encounter for me was with Antonín Dvorak's American Quartet, the second half of Monday's program. It's stylistically kin to Dvorak's famous New World Symphony — the composer wrote it during the same span of living in the U.S. in the 1890s — and as such it filled out the CD of the symphony that Jack and I shared through high school, although I don't think I'd listened through it since we divided up our shared CD stash and parted ways for college. The music remained more clearly familiar to me than I would have thought, especially the amiably broad melodies of the first movement (that track being likeliest to get some unintentional airplay before we noticed the New World had ended and swapped the disc out for Strauss' Alpine Symphony), but I heard for the first time how much its style is defined by a collision between American folk idioms and those that Dvorak brought with him from his native land. In that span of a dozen-plus years I've picked up, along with whatever deep-listening ability I have, some familiarity with Willa Cather's novels, so the quartet put me in mind of a Catheresque prairie scenario, equal parts American and Bohemian. I don't want to hammer the point too hard but it's neat to find your context for understanding a piece broadened after some years away.
The Pacificas chased this with an encore rendition of the alla-pizzicato movement from Bartok's fourth quartet, which after all that Romantic lyricism had a distinctly insectoid presence, something that crawled out of a weirder, darker region of central Europe. I bring it up to note that it moved one elderly audience member to bellow out, in crackly old-man voice, "If only Bartok were alive to hear this!" a few bars from the end — a fine example of the inscrutable old-person heckling you're most likely to hear, though happily very rarely, from paid audiences of chamber-music recital series. Whether he was responding to the composer or the performers, or indeed whether he was voicing pleasure or dis-, I don't know. The most charitable attitude to bear on this sort of interruption seems to be to recall that the brains of the elderly tend to have lost, on a physiological level, some of the acuity required to maintain their peak adult level of self discipline. (The quartet repeated their encores from a pair of concerts in town last season
, meanwhile, and nobody had anything pressing to say about the Bartok then.)
The revelatory item on Monday's bill, though, was Nikolai Myaskovsky's 13th and final string quartet, composed in 1949: I've been only dimly aware of Myaskovsky as a figure in music history (a Russian composer whose career straddled the Czarist and Soviet eras) and completely unfamiliar with his work, but I found the quartet in the Pacifica's hands to be gorgeous and utterly transporting, one of those why-haven't-I-listened-to-this-before moments. The work contains some light impishness, particularly in the "presto fantastico" second movement, which makes a kind of gentle cousin to Prokofiev's characteristic style — the ensemble swerved through it with impressive deftness — but for the most part it's a fluid and dark-hued work, songful in a way that looks back to Rimsky-Korsakov's tradition but embodying the sleekly modern lines and harmonic effects of mid-century Soviet music at its serious-minded best. The cantabile third movement was a highlight of the two-concert stint.
The Soviet component of the Tuesday concert was Shostakovich's quartet no. 9, representing the two nights' most modern extent, both in date (1964) and compositional technique. The music isn't what you'd call modernist, but to my ear it is the first of Shostakovich's fifteen quartets to embody the discursive, idiosyncratic style that characterizes most of his late chamber works: The extremes of earnestness and irony, lyricism and high drama that fit into recognizable (if non-representational) narratives in his earlier music are all present, but seemingly fragmented and reassembled into a more abstract, inscrutable psychological landscape. The work invites motivic cat-and-mouse games as anything else in Shostakovich's heavily self-referential output (I woke up this morning recalling that an odd, pirouetting melody that emerges from one of the quartet's quiet moments is recycled from the composer's score for the graveyard scene in Grigori Kozintsev's film Hamlet
; make of that
what you will) but in the moment I was locked in to the music's abstractions. The Emerson Quartet visited Portland a couple of seasons ago and played the ninth with their typical laser-cut precision and symphonic bigness of sound, throwing chilly emphasis onto the work's hard angles; the Pacificas kept the music at a more conversational level, softening its edges and seeming to direct more of its intensity inward. The work's frantic last minutes often remind me of a rising column of fire (in large part I'm sure because I learned the work from the Emersons, and before that from a blistering live recording by the Borodin Quartet in the '70s) but here they sounded more like combustion in a closed space, ravenously consuming all available oxygen and fuel.
The early parts of both concerts were taken up with early Beethoven quartets and Tuesday's concert ended with his second Razumovsky quartet, finally revealing the broad-shouldered and self-assured, mature-Beethoven sound that was only hinted at in the earlier works; the Pacificas' sound was appropriately robust and extrovert, airing out the post-Shostakovich atmosphere. Their encore, the spare and reflective Cavatina from Beethoven's later op. 130 quartet (situated within that composer's own deeply idiosyncratic late style, with which I'm not nearly familiar enough; I've assigned myself some Beethoven and Myaskovsky homework), completed a miniature survey of sorts of Beethoven's quartet music, and functioned as an odd epilogue to the concerts, as though, having offered glimpses of and then finally arrived at a familiar, Beethovian geography, they then proved a telescopic view of some rarefied outer planet. No hecklers of the Cavatina, although that music is weirder in its way than Bartok's. Two richly varied, exceptionally well performed programs overall.