CAMBRIDGE - The classical music scene in this country is bursting with ambitious young string quartets, and at the moment, two up-and-coming ensembles are gaining toeholds in the Boston area. The Chiara String Quartet will be the Blodgett artists-in-residence at Harvard beginning next fall, and the Pacifica Quartet has already begun a three-year residency at the Longy School of Music. The latter group is based in Illinois, but the players will teach at Longy for a concentrated period each semester, and the ensemble will give regular performances, as it did Thursday night at Pickman Concert Hall.
The Pacifica's members are still young, but the group has been around for more than a decade. They are confident interpreters of the standard repertoire and also fearless exponents of contemporary music (Exhibit A: they will traverse all five quartets by Elliott Carter on a single program this season in New York). Their concert on Thursday effectively balanced two cornerstones of the literature - a Beethoven Quartet (Op. 59, No. 3) and a Beethoven-obsessed Mendelssohn Quartet (Op. 13) - with a 20th-century masterpiece, Ligeti's Quartet No. 1, "Métamorphoses Nocturnes."
The Mendelssohn came first, and as was evident from the opening slow chorale, the group possesses a well-blended, dark-amber sound, polished at a medium gloss. Masumi Rostad (viola) and Brandon Vamos (cello) provide a smooth and elegant grounding in the bass, and Simin Ganatra (first violin) and Sibbi Bernhardsson (second violin) play brilliantly together, though they are a less seamless match in temperament. The outer movements of the Mendelssohn brim with stormy lyricism, and the Pacifica navigated both of them with a winning blend of ensemble precision and expressive heat. The third movement was very clearly etched, though it might have benefited from a somewhat lighter touch and a more diaphanous ensemble sound.
Ligeti's First Quartet, written in 1953-54, essentially picks up where the Bartok quartets leave off. The piece's 12 short movements are strung together and built on a concise four-note motive that gets sliced, diced, and transformed in every way imaginable. In what was the strongest performance of the night, the Pacifica players gave themselves over completely to the work's haunting extraterrestrial soundscapes. Without shying away from the music's violent extremes and gnashing dissonances, they stayed attuned to its sudden flashes of irony and humor, and for that matter, its moments of serene beauty.
The Pacifica dispatched the Beethoven with impressive clarity and commitment, even if the reading had room to continue deepening. There is perhaps more pathos to be found in the doleful waves of the second movement, and the turbocharged fugal finale, which features about six of the most exhilarating minutes of chamber music ever written, had a slightly restrained quality, short on the surging momentum and volcanic power that the best readings can convey.
Still, at intermission, several students in the audience could be heard making awestruck comments about the Ligeti. The Pacifica is clearly an excellent young ensemble whose members should inspire those they teach. Longy is wise to have recruited them.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.