Whether or not the Pacifica Quartet intended to assess the similarities among these three superb compositions -- the program notes suggest the opposite -- that's what I hear on this CD, an assertion of the musical and emotional unity of "Music Between the Wars." The lives of Leos Janacek (1854-1928), Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-1953), and Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) were as far from intersecting as streets in different cities, but all three were confident of one common value: the universality of music. All three were embedded in, and defiant of, post-Romanticism, yet even their defiance will sound solidly Brahmsian to ears gestated after WW2, on the music of Carter, Schnittke, Nono, Takemitsu. What the Pacific Quartet accomplishes is to make these retrospectively conservative compositions sound as bold and innovative as their composers knew them to be.
The four members of the Pacifica Quartet are no longer quite as young as their album picture suggests. They've been together since the early 1990s, but they are plainly of the new school of fiddlers. They achieve their affective intensity through incisive rhythms, tempi, and articulations rather than through broad swaths of string timbre. Their vibrato is extremely lean and mean, with the result that their tuning is acutely fine. They've been acclaimed for their recordings of Elliot Carter and of numerous commissioned works by living composers. Their stringent anti-Romanticism announces itself even in the profoundly romantic "Intimate Letters" by Janacek, a quartet inspired by the composer's "June-December" love affair. Their ensemble technique is impeccable, so tight that their distinctive interpretations sound logical on all three compositions.
The second quartet of Leos Janacek, written when the composer was 74 years old, is among the finest chamber works of the 20th C ... at least to my 72-year-old ears. I have most of the available recordings of it, but this one bids to displace all others in my esteem. It's stormy rather than moody, sharply-incised rather than swoony. The tempi are bright; they sound fast even when they are not much different from the Emerson's. The viola part, which Janacek designated to be played "sul ponticello," is indeed played with fiery precision "at the bridge." But the whole ensemble favors bridge tones almost as devotedly as the Kronos Quartet, with the natural result of passionate stridency. I wouldn't want to hear Schubert played this way, but their style seems "just so" for both the Janacek and the Crawford works. (I've heard the Pacificas live, by the way, performing Haydn's "Seven Last Words" quartet, and I can vouch for their ability to play less astringently.)
Ruth Crawford Seeger's String Quartet of 1931 sounds bigger here, holding its place bravely between the Janacek and the Hindemith. Perhaps the context reveals some of its strengths, making its atonal effects more striking and its affect more persuasive. The affinity of affect between the Janacek and the Crawford is so close that the Hindemith, supposedly the most modernist work of the three, sounds to my ears the most formalist and academic. But it too is a stunning piece of music, this "Quartet No.4" from Hindemith's 1922 collection of Kammermusik. Hindemith was the most explicitly anti-romantic of our three composers here, and his Kammermusik was intended as an anti-romantic manifesto. Down with the symphony! Down with atmospheric and impressionistic 'literary' bombast! Hindemith's declared objective was a kind of absolute music accessible only to chamber ensembles. Curiouser and curiouser ... time and the fiddles of the Pacifica Quartet have made Hindemith sound foursquare comfortable in the compositional lineage of 19th/20th classicism.
"Declarations" lives up to its album title. All three quartets sound like declarations of musical mastery, and with this recording the Pacifica Quartet declares its position as one of the foremost string ensembles active today.