From across the centuries, the quartets of Beethoven and Shostakovich have come to be regarded as the twin pillars of the quartet repertoire. Think of them as the New Testament and the Old Testament. The Pacifica Quartet offered a program that sandwiched Shostakovich with a pair of quartets by Beethoven.

Pacifica Quartet © UCLA Live
Pacifica Quartet
© UCLA Live

The String Quartet No. 9, one of Shostakovich’s finest essays in the genre, found the Pacifica sounding lithe and immaculately polished. Though at their fingertips there was also an energy that matched the fury of much of the composer’s writing. The central scherzo, with its taut rhythm and stark motivic writing, was a veritable powerhouse. Their sense of tightly coiled power - unleashed only at crucial climactic points - gave their interpretation a real sense of menace. Tightness was the word of the day here: both in their ensemble playing and their sense of rhythm. Motoric drive gave the quartet’s finale an inexorable feel; a bracing, headlong rush.

Bookending the Shostakovich were the Fourth and Eighth Quartets of Beethoven - the former from the Opus 18 set; the latter from the Razumovsky.

The tightness that drove the Shostakovich gave way here to lyric strength and a careful sense of architecture. Aiding them were their gestures which were writ large. The way the Pacifica leaned into chords and their sense of dynamic control set their Beethoven away from the world of intimate conversation, instead placing them front and center in the symphony hall. The Pacifica’s handling of the Russian theme in the Eighth’s scherzo, a theme later used by Mussorgsky by the wailing crowds at the start of his Boris Godunov - an opera which, incidentally, was a favorite of Shostakovich, who had made prepared his own edition of the work in 1940 - was bold; surging with power.

This was less Beethoven the chamber composer; more Beethoven the symphonist. It was refreshingly different and the Pacifica were utterly convincing.

As an encore there was the goofy Allegretto pizzicato from Bela Bartok’s Fourth Quartet. It made for a delightful chaser to the Shostakovich and Beethoven - and made one hungry to hear more of their Bartok.