A young quartet, preparing for liftoff
CAMBRIDGE - About five years ago there was suddenly a bumper crop of talented young American string quartets. They seemed to be everywhere.
Nowadays, these ensembles are gradually moving into the establishment and losing their “up-and-coming’’ designation. The Pacifica Quartet is a perfect example. This month the group takes up a prestigious residency at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a post held for 43 years by the Guarneri String Quartet.
Boston-area chamber music fans have had opportunities to catch this dynamic group on the rise thanks to its ongoing affiliation with the Longy School of Music. The Pacifica returned to Longy on Thursday night with a performance of works by Mozart, Janacek, and Brahms - the same program in fact that it will bring to the Met Museum later this month for its first recital.
The Janacek in particular showed how impressive this group can be when fully engaged and fired by the music at hand, but the Mozart and Brahms were each in their own way underwhelming and surprisingly bland. The adagio opening of Mozart’s “Dissonance’’ Quartet (K. 465) was marred by some muddy intonation and the reading overall needed more sparkle in its detailing, greater contrast in its expressive range, and simply more conviction behind the interpretive ideas. Second violinist Sibbi Bernhardsson has a beautiful tone but one that tended to disappear into the group sound at key moments when more prominence and rhythmic bite were needed.
Brahms’s tumultuous A-minor String Quartet had its persuasive moments but it lacked that final degree of rhythmic drive, tonal intensity, and expressive commitment that makes the difference between a pleasant stroll through the land of Brahms and a knockout performance.
This group can do much better - and did. Between the two pieces came Janacek’s Quartet No. 2, “Intimate Letters,’’ performed as the riveting autobiographical drama that it is. The composer wrote this heated work in 1928, at the very end of his life, while consumed with love for a woman 38 years younger. And here was the Pacifica one had hoped to see, laying into this densely expressive music with passion, theatricality, and imagination from the opening bars, which were themselves made haunting by violist Masumi Per Rostad’s brief solo. The group did not let up for the length of the work, delivering a performance at once nuanced and viscerally charged. This is the level one hopes the Pacifica can sustain - especially in its exciting new chapter.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com.