The highly talented Pacifica Quartet offered the second installment of their complete Shostakovich string quartet cycle tonight in Montréal’s Église St. George as part of the Montréal Chamber Music Festival. An immensely versatile ensemble, the Pacifica Quartet was formed in 1994, quickly winning a number of chamber music competitions around the world. They now tour extensively through the United States, Europe and Asia, and serve as quartet-in-residence at the University of Illinois, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the University of Chicago.

Presenting a complete Shostakovich cycle comes with some unique challenges. For one, proper understanding of his music requires a great deal of contextual knowledge of Stalin’s Russia. Stalin controlled all artistic output in his domain, and officially denounced “Formalism”, the practice of writing abstract music, or “music for music’s sake.” Under Stalin’s rule, all art must serve the government’s ideals, and be of like philosophy to that of the regime. His influence on Shostakovich’s music was so immense, references to Stalin’s character and that of his government abound in most of Shostakovich’s works.

What are some of the most unmistakable Shostakovich-isms? That is, what aspects of his music allow us to recognize his craftsmanship even if we don’t know he composed the work bewfore hearing it? Self-reference would surely top this list. Shostakovich employs a musical trick in many of his works, including all four quartets in this concert: he composes a motive which is made up of parts of his initials—DSCH for Dimitri SCHostakovich. He does this by using a four-note theme D-E flat-C-B, which in German notation spells D-“Es”-C-H. War themes are also quite prevalent in his works, as is a general militaristic quality. His harmonic language is not as forward-looking as that of many of his contemporaries, many of whom abandoned tonality long ago, and he often uses old forms and motivic development—techniques which were long abandoned by that time in mainstream composition. We also find many demonic waltzes in his music, movement over incessant pedal tones, and of course, his famous sardonic wit.

As the Pacifica Quartet began the Quartet no. 5 it was obvious that they had been playing together for a long time. Tone and vibrato matched seamlessly, as if one instrument was playing. Positioned in a wide semi-circle, the quartet offered the audience maximum visibility to observe their art, while maintaining the ability to communicate visually with each other at all times. The Fifth Quartet was written shortly after Stalin denounced Shostakovich (as well as Prokofiev, Kabalevsky and others) as a formalist, forcing him to make his living as a film composer. Although the ban was lifted in 1949, Shostakovich was expected to write music that served the government. This, then, is a bleak work punctuated by long stretches of grief-stricken music reminiscent of great empty plains of snow. It takes a tremendously high level of sustained concentration to enjoy some of his slow movements, and the Pacifica Quartet made this easier with musical nuance and phrasing.

The Quartet no. 6 opens with a stuttering viola rhythm, which was played by Masumi Per Rostad, easing into a staccato dialogue between the violins and cello. Brandon Vamos’ cello playing was a highlight of the evening—his technique was absolutely perfect, radiant with expression, athleticism and intelligence, and his intonation was flawless throughout. He is no doubt the strongest member of this impressive ensemble. Masumi Per Rostad’s viola playing was energetic, rich in tone, and imbued with expression which came from his almost constant state of motion. Simin Ganatra’s first violin playing was strong in leadership and musicality, but often lacked the indefatigable intonation of her peers, especially high on the E-string.

The Quartet no. 7 is the briefest of Shostakovich’s quartets, and connects all movements into one unbroken line. By 1960, Shostakovich no longer had to deal with Soviet intrusion into his art. Finally he was able to write music unhindered. With this freedom, he wrote the Seventh Quartet in memory of Nina Vazar, the mother of his children, and imbued the work with the F sharp major theme present in his opera Lady Macbeth, a work which was also dedicated to her.

The Quartet no. 8 is no doubt Shostakovich’s most famous quartet, and is commonly the first work people hear by this composer. The work is largely autobiographical, and Shostakovich claimed that he would dedicate it to his own memory, though he publicly dedicated it “to the victims of war and fascism.” The DSCH theme is constantly apparent in this quartet, and is developed in a great number of ways by the composer. It also contains two famous musical effects: repeating “fateful knocks,” often attributed to the violent raps of Soviet fists on a door, and a distant air raid siren played on the open strings of the violin. Pacifica began the work with an appropriate solemnity, but the Allegro molto exploded with a truly unsustainable tempo. This speed was too fast to hold, and with each successive phrase the momentum slowed audibly. Vamos played an absolutely breathtaking cello solo, leading effectively into the air raid siren.

It takes a very dedicated and insightful ensemble to present all fifteen of Shostakovich’s quartets in four days, and the Pacifica Quartet is doing very nicely in Montréal.