The Strad Issue: January 2012
Description: Performances of Shostakovich refreshingly free of political subtexts
Musicians: Pacifica Quartet
Composer: Shostakovich & Miaskovsky

Over the years performances of Shostakovich’s music have become increasingly laden with political subtexts. Even the most innocent of gestures and elegant of structures are almost invariably forced to carry an expressive weight of suffocating intensity. It seems at times as though everything he composed must perforce be put through a semantic mangle.

How refreshing, therefore, to encounter the subtly understated performances of the Pacifica Quartet, which pays Shostakovich the compliment of allowing his music to blossom forth, unmanacled by the need to lace his every whim and caprice with irony. The Fifth Quartet, in particular, emerges as an exquisitely expressive and structured masterwork, the limpid simplicity of the finale’s waltz theme forming a stark contrast with the sardonic manner in which it is often presented. The enchanting neo-Classical opening of the Sixth Quartet possesses an almost Dvo?ák-like warmth, the allegretto finale an enchanting lyrical flow, all the more effective for being played in such an ingenuous manner.

The most graphic and popular of all the quartets – no.8 – may have been intended as a musical last will and testament, but is here refreshingly presented with Classical poise and simplicity, entirely free of hysteria, which is all the more effective for staying within the bounds of chamber expression. Those who prefer their Shostakovich bleak and protesting may find the Pacifica musicians’ gratefully engineered recordings a shade lacking in emotional clout, but as their sensitive playing of Miaskovsky demonstrates, they prove eminently reliable guides through the expressive maze of this endlessly fascinating repertoire.