It seemed appropriate that this evening’s concert should feature American performers introducing brand new music by an American composer. The difference between composer and performers in this instance is that whilst the Pacifica Quartet has in recent years made a name for itself in the UK, the music of Shulamit Ran is almost unheard of in this country.

Pacifica Quartet © Saverio Truglia
Pacifica Quartet
© Saverio Truglia

However, it was Beethoven to open the programme, a familiar figure the world over, and an engaging performance of the String Quartet in B flat major Op.18 no. 6. What particularly distinguished this reading, along with the rest of the concert for that matter, was the supreme quality of the ensemble playing. There was a clear and shared vision of phrasing, excellent balance and wonderful colouristic variety. The controlled use of vibrato, often in fact playing without any, was a particular feature of the sound in this performance. The slow movement was a particular highlight, for all of the reasons listed above, and even the first movement, which is not one of Beethoven’s most inspired, was rendered with appealing clarity.

From the rather sunny disposition of the Beethoven quartet, the programme took a different turn with the UK première of Shulamit Ran’s Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory – String Quartet no. 3. Taking its inspiration from the life and work of Jewish artist Felix Nussbaum, who met an untimely end amidst the horrors of Auschwitz, each movement had a quasi-programmatic description printed in the concert programme. Alternating between a delicate minor key melody and a strident chromatic figure, the latter eventually coming to dominate the former, the first movement – “That which happened” – reflected upon the irreversible upheaval of normal life brought about by the Holocaust. The second movement – “Menace” – took the form of a death dance bristling with overwhelming rhythmic variety, which was brought to an effectively throwaway ending, if somewhat gimmicky in its use of stamping and whistling. Once the whole programme of the concert had been concluded, this movement was performed again as an encore. The third movement – “If I must perish – do not let my paintings die”, a quote attributed to Nussbaum himself – carried the central expressive weight of the work, realised through its increasingly impassioned development of brief, expressionless musical figures. The final movement – “Shards, Memory” – exaggerated the fragmentary qualities of the third with extended solo passages recalling material heard throughout the piece. There was a dim sense of retribution, but the broad outlook was overwhelmingly bleak.

The musical language of this piece is fairly hard to describe. The closest I can come is possibly Bartók in his particularly modernist moments, the Fourth String Quartet maybe. The formal rhythms were fairly traditional, and the harmony relatively dissonant yet deeply expressive. What is clear is that both Ran’s musical and intellectual sensibilities are finely honed. Reflecting upon why this music isn’t better known and, if I know anything about the world of contemporary music, why it probably never will be, throws up interesting questions about the increasing gulf between ‘classical’ and ‘contemporary classical’ practices. The latter often displays greatest reverence for the most avant-garde and, modern as it is, Ran’s music certainly isn’t that.

The concert closed with Mendelssohn’s Quartet in F minor Op.80. If the rather crude programme note were to be believed, one might have expected more bitter rumination on death. Luckily the Pacifica Quartet transcended such simplification and gave a performance which, whilst undeniably appassionato in its general expressive tone, displayed great variety and well characterised playing. What was particularly impressive was the degree to which the quartet was able to adapt its sound to the demands of the music; they did not sound like the same quartet which had played the Beethoven, but this was a good thing. One expects the expected with Mendelssohn and whilst there were no great revelations to be found within this piece, it is hard to imagine it being played any better.