The Pacifica Quartet, now in its third year of residency at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has the formidable task of taking up the role occupied by the Guarnieri Quartet, which played there for 43 of its 45 years. The Pacifica is relatively young, a year or so shy of its tenth birthday, but holds the promise of a venerable ensemble in the making, with chops and class to prove it.

Pacifica Quartet, © Anthony Parmelee
Pacifica Quartet,
© Anthony Parmelee

The program was a nice progression through early, middle, and late Beethoven, with Op. 18 no. 6 “La Malinconia,” Op. 95 “Serioso,” and the magnificent Op. 130, with the original final movement, the Grosse Fuge, that is played on its own sometimes. Saturday’s program was the third of six concerts of their Beethoven cycle at the museum this season.

Early Beethoven is sunny compared to his later works, but all his complexities of form and texture are there. The first movement of “La Malinconia” weaves effortlessly in and out of accompanimental figures – often with the lower voices supporting the first violin – to full ensemble moments. The Pacifica led us through these moments like a good conversationalist. The Scherzo movement begins with two quarter-note pick-ups. This can be a clunky phrase to make dance, but it came off beautifully. The last movement, the namesake “La Malinconia,” begins with a long Adagio, at first without the cello, lending a feeling of shiftlessness. The second half of the movement, Allegretto quasi allegro, was the one spot in the performance that could have used more pep. The Pacifica excels in bringing out musical contrasts, and perhaps this long stretch of a sunny finale – hardly melancholic at all – did not play to that strength. If only we had been informed about what Beethoven or his publisher meant by “Malinconia.” Sadly The Met programs never provide commentary.

Op. 95 in F minor, dubbed “Serioso,” offers manifold opportunities for dramatizing contrast in its four short movements, and the Pacifica drew out the full range of emotion in the work. The quartet begins with an aggressive unison opening that almost immediately shifts to a lyrical accompanied section. The aggressive material transforms throughout the movement into bubbly accompaniment and angular fugal passages. After an inward-looking second movement, the rough third movement (Allegro assai ma serioso) plays like a proto-Grosse Fuge, with short, imitative phrases that seem to foreshadow the later work. Here especially, the sonorous and solid playing of cellist Brandon Vamos (to me the cellist is the critical player in any quartet) propelled the motion and anchored the sound. The group brought great swing to the 6/8 final movement, with especially fine passagework from first violinist Simin Ganatra.

The Grosse Fuge (great fugue) casts such a long shadow that one almost forgets the other glories of Op. 130. In truth, each movement has enough material to stand on its own: the slow Cavatina has been recorded in a string orchestra version, and the catchy Presto second movement is often played on radio stations to top off the hour with a bang. The Pacifica has clearly lived with this work for a long time, capable of both breathing Beethoven’s long phrases and making the tiny inflections that bring the piece to life. This latter quality was especially clear in the first-movement dialogue between the viola and violins, when each player matched the subtle swells or decrescendos of the others. The Pacifica players are masters of this type of musical mindreading, and it is thrilling to hear.

The short fourth movement of the six – Alla danza tedesca; Allegro assai – had beautiful lyricism to the opening 3/4 melody. But in the faster section, and later in the closing fugue, the Pacifica ran into some sloppy intonation, like so many quartets do. But technique sacrificed on the altar of expression is welcome, and any flaws in the performance read like expressive choices.

The Grosse Fuge itself was intelligently thought-out, and played with mastery of color and shape. It is difficult to make the work make sense – perhaps why Beethoven’s audience disliked it so much that he wrote an alternative final movement – but the Pacifica’s performance kept us on the edges of our seats until the end. Especially notable were their color changes in the quiet middle part of the movement, when at times it sounded as if they were playing with mutes. They carried the effect to the very end, when the fugue statement appears unaccompanied in each instrument, and each color choice was haunting and perfect.

Chamber music groups are like wine: they grow more complex and mellowed each year. The Pacifica Quartet’s Beethoven is off to a promising start, hopefully with another 40 years to grow.