The Pacifica Quartet is Back in the USSR

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Two’s company and three’s a crowd, but four is a string quartet: An epitome of balance and dialogue that subsequently gives composers a curious amount of freedom for how limited they are in size and scope.

While it is argued that Beethoven perfected this musical form, coming hot on his heels is Dmitri Shostakovich, whose 15 string quartets are often regarded as the windows into the composer’s tortured soul. Zig-zagging between governmental praise and attacks in Pravda, Shostakovich had a complicated relationship with the totalitarian USSR, trying to play the game without fully comprehending the rules.

We may not know to what extent Shostakovich funneled his frustrations with Stalin and the Soviets into these quartets, yet their personal significance is palpable: Writer Wendy Lesser, in last year’s Music for Silenced Voices, sees the whole compendium as a musical autobiography for the composer, perhaps even moreso than his actual memoirs, Testimony.  The power of the music on its own terms is undeniable. The first quartet owes much to Beethoven and shows Shostakovich still discovering the form, eagerly and devotedly.

His second has a similar fervency, written in the twilight of World War II and arriving without any perfunctory notes. Its urgency quickly cedes to a third quartet which was written in the wake of Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony being censured by Soviet authorities and during Stalin’s post-war purges, crackling as one would imagine with manic sarcasm. The fourth mines these depths even further, foreshadowing the morbidity of Shostakovich’s later quartets with a piercing, beautiful, brash bleakness.

These four quartets (rounded out by Prokofiev’s turbulent String Quartet No. 20) are the focus of the Pacifica Quartet’s second installment of The Soviet Experience, a multi-album series that will feature their bracing, sensitive renditions of Shostakovich’s quartets, along with works by his contemporaries. It comes as part of a multi-disciplinary collaboration between nearly 30 of Chicago’s arts institutions to showcase works created under the long-cast shadow of the Politburo by Soviet artists.

Ambitious? Da. But it’s hard not to think that those of us who don’t live in the Second City are missing out on something truly special. Fortunately, that’s where albums like this help to both document and spread the doctrine.

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