Last year the Kreeger Museum made our list of Five Favorite American Buildings, and on Saturday night a concert by the Pacifica Quartet provided another excellent excuse to spend some time in the house that Philip Johnson built. The Pacifica has recently released the first volume of a 2-CD set of the string quartets of Elliott Carter, and the almost-centenarian composer's latest, no. 5, was on the program. The "new vision" Carter has attributed to this work could be described as a postmodern program, with the four instruments not only playing a series of movements but, in a juxtaposed layer of interludes, commenting on each movement. At the same time, the score drives the players through merciless technical demands of all kinds, with very little that sounds like unity. Carter compared it to the process of a quartet rehearsing, that is, the sound of the fifth quartet is a string quartet preparing to play the fifth quartet.
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Elliott Carter, String Quartets 1 and 5, Pacifica Quartet (released January 29, 2008)
Some time spent with the score confirms that what sounds like misalignment is what Carter intended. In the second movement (Giocoso) and the garrulous sixth movement (Presto scorrevole), when the four voices are actually playing together, they have complicated patterns that do not line up (sixteenths, triplets, fivelets, sevenlets). Expressive moments also abound in the murmuring clusters of the fourth movement (Lento espressivo) and especially the fractalized harmonics of the tenth movement (Adagio sereno). That was the most beautiful part of hearing the quartet live, the sound of those layered harmonics, mostly piano and pianissimo. The sound is memorable on disk, but in a hall, bouncing off stone, the metallic, slicing sound seemed to reprogram my ears, as if my atoms were being split and the particles flung wide across the universe.
The two other selections provided interesting parallels, intended or not, to the theme of conversation. Mozart's K. 387 features a chromatic rising line in the second movement and a fugal subject in the last movement passed among the instruments. Although the cello of Brandon Vamos had a smooth tone in his second-movement solo moments, at other times his tendency to force the sound resulted in strident growls. Simin Ganatra's first violin seemed shallow-voiced at first in the third movement but deepened to a more singing quality. Far more suited to the Pacifica's strengths was the final work, Smetana's first string quartet (E minor, "From My Life"). In this piece, intended as a sort of autobiography, the four instruments, "as in a circle of friends, talk among themselves about what has oppressed me so significantly."
Robert Battey, Pacifica Quartet (Washington Post, April 14)
Here, as in the Carter, violist Masumi Per Rostad proved the most distinctive individual voice of the quartet (he also writes a sporadic online journal for Gramophone), playing the part taken by Antonín Dvořák when this quartet was first performed in Prague. The polka had a pleasing folk rubato, contrasted by a more Viennese trio, with a tang of tango in it. The third movement (Largo sostenuto) opened with an intense cello solo, followed by the thick, searing first violin. In another parallel with Carter, Smetana's fourth movement includes a summary of themes from the preceding movement, which came to an impossibly soft conclusion, leaving the audience in stunned silence.
The Pacifica Quartet will be back next month, with a concert dedicated to Elliott Carter at the Library of Congress (May 29, 8 pm), including the piano quintet.