Pacifica Quartet Credit: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

It might seem backhanded or cute to say that a Grammy–winning string quartet’s 16th record has the feel of a second act. But that more or less describes the Pacifica Quartet’s new release, Contemporary Voices. The album is the ensemble’s second since they changed up their ranks; violinist Austin Hartman and violist Mark Holloway replace longtime members Sibbi Bernhardsson and Masumi Per Rostad, both of whom left the group in 2017. The album also feels like a sequel because the three pieces it collects are both too new to be widely recorded and too old to be completely unfamiliar. Only Shulamit Ran’s Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory (2012–2013)—her third string quartet—is a world-premiere recording. The Pacifica Quartet join it with Jennifer Higdon’s satisfyingly contrasting Voices triptych (1993) and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s cosmopolitan Quintet for Alto Saxophone and String Quartet (2007), featuring dulcet-toned saxophonist Otis Murphy. Pacifica play like fencers—all reflexes and restraint, ceremony and choreography. So it was in the Bernhardsson-Rostad era; so it remains with Hartman and Holloway, though each set of players sounds a touch different in their inner-voice roles. Pacifica’s interpretation of Ran’s quartet foretells beautiful alchemies to come: Glitter is inspired by artist Felix Nussbaum, whose paintings became increasingly bleak and surrealistic as the Holocaust forced him out of Germany and eventually into hiding. (He was executed at Auschwitz in 1944.) At times the piece sounds like an aesthetic heir to the string quartets of Schoenberg and Bartók—nostalgic, sardonic, paroxysmal. That’s apt enough: they too crawled from the rubble of a dying world and grasped for what was still living.   v