I suppose I say it too often: "They are one of my very favorite string quartets". Yes I have several favorites. And, in all honesty, one can never have too many, right?
Well, the Pacifica is indisputably one of my all-time favorites. And even though some (most) of their members have been switched out over the years since their founding in 1994, the consistent excellence remains steadfastly assured. I'm sure we have the one constant, 1st violinist Simin Ganatra, to praise for that.
(The Pacifica Quartet has an esteemed history. They have been quartet-in-residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, resident performing artist at the University of Chicago, and most recently named quartet-in-residence at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music in 2012.)
This latest disc is a knockout. I'm not familiar with two of the composers or their music, so I can only relate what I hear. These are all contemporary compositions by female composers and each is as different from the other as can be imagined. Interestingly (and perhaps coincidentally) I initially liked them in order from most to least in the same order in which they appear on the disc. But in a subsequent listen, I have decided I like them all fairly equally.
Still, the standout for me is undoubtedly the opening work - the substantial, four-movement String Quartet #3 by Shulamit Ran (subtitled Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory). Significantly, this is its premier recording. It is one of those pieces which instantly engages the listener and is appealing in a way which urgently has one searching for more. (I found several discs of her works on Amazon and immediately ordered a couple of them.) Ran is a true talent. There is no mistaking her creative genius - in organic, melodic inspiration, in organized structure, in skillful scoring and creating fascinating textures. Each movement is imaginative, individual and different from one another, providing endless variety and interest. Everywhere she exhibits a distinctly unique compositional voice, sounding like no other composer I could think of - except perhaps Dutilleux, in her use of incredible scoring techniques for strings (more below). Most of all, she has something important to say in every phrase.
Her orchestration, though, is really something to behold. We know something awesome is about to happen right from the opening violin statement, which is played con-sordino, answered by a second violin non-sordino. Later, suddenly the quartet plays a chord on harmonics - are those flutes? No, it's just the string quartet. Soon, tremolos sul-pont bring another color. And so it goes, all serving to adorn memorable melodic phrases, which themselves are played sometimes with vibrato, sometime sans.
The variety of the music itself continues to amaze as well. Just listen to the second movement, which at one point is interrupted by an audacious Waltz, followed by a tune played in unison on harmonics while simultaneously being whistled! The third movement introduces col legno (always a favorite of mine), then an intensely passionate, sorrowful song bursts to the fore, followed by true anguish. (The Pacifica Quartet's playing is simply overwhelming in this passage.) The finale is more stark, taking us again to the other-worldly sound of mature Dutilleux, replete with harmonics, as if all just a memory.
What an incredible piece this is. Ran is simply in a category of her own - for true inspiration, creative prowess and masterful orchestration.
Jennifer Higdon's Voices is good, in a more decidedly "modern" way. I read in the booklet this is one of her early works (1993); nonetheless it sounds exactly like Jennifer Higdon. I generally like her music and find it interesting. But I often hear it originating as from a formula - she knows what works, she knows what makes for interesting listening, she knows all the ingredients to get from start to finish, taking an interesting, coherent path. I don't mean this as faint praise. She is very good at it. But I don't hear the same inspiration as I hear from some of her contemporaries. Voices is typical of her work, the heartfelt final movement showing her at her best. The piece is laid out in 3 contrasting movements, beginning with an energetic blaze of notes in Blitz; slowing things down in the middle section, Soft Enlacing; and relaxing to a calming conclusion in Grace. The piece is dedicated to the Pacifica Quartet.
The final work is very different. An alto saxophone joins the quartet of strings in Ellen Taaffe Zwilich's Quintet. Interestingly, the movements themselves are not titled, but are simply supplied with metronome markings. However, I love the variety of moods and styles. And I like how the composer describes her chamber music as being a "conversation among equals". This is exactly how I hear her Quintet. I was expecting the saxophone to be prominently featured, concerto-style. It is not. It simply is added color and texture, as if an additional string player. Otis Murphy plays it perfectly; he blends his tone with the strings in a most delicate manner. But not always - there are passages where he adds a little extra spice and takes on a soloistic role when called for. But other times, one has to really listen to ascertain which line is played by the sax and which is a member of the string quartet. It's all about color. And I found the work enormously interesting to hear.
The first movement begins with a melancholy saxophone song, but soon turns lively and energetic, with unmistakable hints of Stravinsky. It is so expertly scored, it sounds almost symphonic in scope and color. The second movement combines Stravinsky with a very strong jazz influence. This one has the Pacifica positively swinging to the music! The final movement begins much like the first, with a plaintive saxophone tune, but jazz soon predominates and infuses every phrase. And with such masterful orchestration, the strings assert an answer for every saxophone comment, and the animated conversation continues to the very end. As in the Ran Quartet, the playing of the Pacifica Quartet cannot be praised highly enough in its ability to bring this music to life.
The recorded sound is excellent (although the microphone placement is not quite perfect in the Zwilich, allowing the lower register of the saxophone to "honk" a bit in the more spirited passages). The group is well focused and projected within a resonant acoustic, with superb presence. This is the second CD I've heard recently which sounds every bit as good as the best SACD. I'm thrilled to hear the CD medium continuing to be relevant and sound exceptionally good. The booklet is equally excellent, with liner notes for each work written by its composer. What insight that provides!
This disc is highly recommended for the adventurous listener looking for something a little different. Yes the works are contemporary, but none of them is atonal or deliberately "modern" (well, perhaps the Hidgon is a little bit), and each is musically important and endlessly interesting. I enjoyed all three works very much, but certainly the magnificent String Quartet by Shulamit Ran is a true masterpiece. The sensational playing of the Pacifica Quartet, along with the excellent recorded sound, make this an outstanding concert in every conceivable way. BRAVO!