I’ve already had my say, at length, about how great the Pacifica Quartet is, so when I set off for their Zankel concert last night, my only intention was to listen for the pleasure of it. The performance was so spectacular, though, that I feel obliged to make a few remarks.
The concert consisted of two long pieces: the Piano Quintet of 1927 by Leo Ornstein before the intermission, and Beethoven’s Opus 130 with its original long ending, the Grosse Fuge, after. I had never heard the Ornstein before, barely even heard of it, and though I’m not yet sure how I would rank it against either the Schumann Piano Quintet or the Shostakovich Piano Quintet (two of my favorites in this genre), I was thrilled to hear it for the first time. The pianist was the marvelous Marc-André Hamelin, who found the piece and brought it to the Pacifica Quartet; Hamelin has recently been rediscovering and playing a lot of work by Ornstein, a twentieth-century composer whose life spanned the whole century—he died in 2002 at the remarkable age of 108—but who essentially disappeared after the 1920s. As you listen to the mingled excitement, romanticism, and discord of the Piano Quartet (performed with miraculous exactitude and exemplary vigor by all five players), you can sense to the full the year 1927, with all its anticipations and thrills. You stand as if on the edge of a brave new world of art, music, literature, theater, dance, and film, in which everything seemed about to change forever. No wonder Ornstein felt he couldn’t adapt to the drab, depressed world that followed.
Beethoven’s Opus 130 is something else again. It is of its time, I suppose, but it is for all time as well, and in the right hands it can seem a newly minted piece every time it is played. The eight hands of the Pacifica Quartet are exactly the right hands. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a more satisfying performance of this complicated, much-loved, occasionally resistant work. In their version, the Grosse Fuge was not just an appropriate but a necessary ending to what had come before. Having thoroughly explored every mood from quiet tentativeness to melodic romanticism and harsh distress, we were rewarded at the end with a feeling of emphatic exhilaration. I felt it coming, as I always do with this rousing ending, and yet I was surprised at the same time: that’s how good the Pacificas are.