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Music review

Pacifica Quartet offers tension, tenacity at Gardner

The Pacifica Quartet (from left) is Simin Ganatra, Sibbi Bernhardsson, Masumi Per Rostad, and Brandon Vamos. Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

“Mozart and Britten are the only two composers I know who strongly and widely attract people who do not understand them,” declared the musicologist Hans Keller in 1952. It’s a contestable yet tantalizing thesis: a kinship between two composers whose sensational early talent and impeccable craftsmanship had the ironic effect of convincing many that they lacked access to deeper emotional realms.

The highly gifted Pacifica Quartet, now in its third decade, began a concert series dedicated to this pairing of composers on Sunday at the Gardner Museum, a venue that encourages this kind of immersive stock-taking. What aspect of the relationship between the two composers they wanted to explore wasn’t immediately clear, but they gave powerful accounts of Mozart’s final quartet, in F (K. 590), and Britten’s String Quartet No. 2 in C.

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Britten wrote the Second Quartet in 1945, after returning from a recital tour of Germany with violinist Yehudi Menuhin that included performances at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. While the piece carries no manifest program, the anxieties and disquiet unleashed by the war and its aftermath are impossible to miss. The Pacifica heightened that impression by underlining the Second’s forward-looking aspects: the peripatetic harmony in the first movement and the apparitional unease of the second.

But the Second Quartet’s most astonishing feature looks backward, to the English Baroque: the finale’s massive chaconne, a theme and 21 variations that range across a dizzying array of textures, moods, and dynamic shadings. Interwoven with the variations are solos for cello, viola, and first violin that sound like secret confessions, and the piece ends with an almost frantic repetition of C major chords, as if the music were desperate to recapture a sense of solid ground after so much upheaval. By relentlessly heightening the music’s tensions, the Pacifica conveyed this melding of tradition and experimentalism brilliantly. A few insecure moments in the violins mattered little in the face of such vibrant musicianship.

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Almost as impressive was the Mozart, music of both effortless grace and wistful austerity. The quartet’s weighty yet transparent sound offered a chance to appreciate the playing of violist Masumi Per Rostad and cellist Brandon Vamos. The last movement emerged as an unusually strong moment: a series of unpredictable detours and excurses that, in the Pacifica’s tenacious performance, seemed to point the way forward to Beethoven and beyond.

Music review

Pacifica Quartet

At Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Sunday


David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.