Elliott Carter completed his first string quartet in 1951, shortly after he had broken with the neoclassical style favored by his one-time teacher, Nadia Boulanger. That first quartet is heard here with the opposite end of the Carter canon, the fifth quartet from 1995, which Carter, having reached the end of a series of ideas for virtuosic string quartet explored in the first four quartets, calls "a farewell to the previous four and an exploration of a new vision." (A second volume containing the rest of the Carter quartets is planned.) Given that Carter has composed a quartet approximately once per decade, we are just about due for no. 6 and the consequences of that new vision.
Available at Amazon:
Elliott Carter, String Quartets 1 and 5, Pacifica Quartet (released January 29, 2008)
Earlier this week, the Pacifica Quartet gave a marathon performance of all five Carter string quartets for the Chamber Music Society at Lincoln Center (reviewed by Steve Smith in the New York Times today). Not a marathon in terms of length, as Carter's tendency toward compactness means that only no. 1 is much longer than 20 minutes, but a marathon of concentration. The Carter year will also hopefully bring the reissues of the two classic recordings, by the Juilliard Quartet (only the first four -- sadly none programmed for the group's February 17 concert at the National Gallery) and the Arditti Quartet (complete). As usual, Naxos offers a competitive price against both of those referential versions.
The Pacifica Quartet has been playing together (three of the four, at least) since they were teenagers in southern California, and the qualities needed to play the Carter quartets well are all there: absolute independence of the four voices (as they are regularly called upon to play in different meters), razor-sharp intonation of complex harmonies, commitment to the full palette of colors (from beautiful to ugly) commanded by the composer, and take-no-prisoners technical finesse. Only the latter is occasionally deficient here, although Carter admits that there are passages that he recognized, as he composed them, that would "make such demands on performers that [they] would never be performed." The sense of a certain lack of virtuosic control at the edges of playability is not only par for the course but perhaps part of the success.
Juilliard (1-4, oop)
Arditti (1-4, Elegy)
The contrast of the two works is striking, the agitated tone and complex formalism of the first quartet versus the zen-like exploration of sparse textures and technical colors in the fifth. The latter is a series of interludes and set pieces, like a suite of incidental music, alternately meditative and manic. It suggests the end of a long journey, spanning Carter's entire mature career, perhaps with more to come. The question that hangs in the air is about legacy. Will the Carter string quartet cycle, possibly still (remarkably, improbably) in progress, be for the late 20th century what Bartók's was for the early? Do these quartets in a sense encapsulate the music of the post-Darmstadt era, which might just be coming to an end? Along with Carter's only opera, reviewed earlier this week, the string quartets are necessary listening for the composer's anniversary year. In time, they may stand for much more than his achievements and stand instead for an entire era. Judging by how much I have enjoyed listening to them for this review, they will be in our ears for a long time.
We will apparently not get a complete Carter quarter cycle here in Washington, but the Pacifica will play Quartet No. 5 on the Candlelight Concert series (April 5, 7:30 pm) at the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center in Columbia, Md., and at the Kreeger Museum (April 12, 8 pm).