CARTER: Quartets 1 and 5. Pacifica Quartet. Naxos 8.559362. 61 minutes.
I think it is safe to say that most Sequenza21 readers have at least a passing familiarity with the music of Elliott Carter. It’s probably not a stretch to say that most S21 readers (and certainly the writers) have strong feelings about it.
The current disc is the first of a two part traversal of the composer’s string quartets, by the Pacifica Quartet. The Quartet has made a splash with their Carter performances, playing all five quartets in single sittings as well as including them in regular programs.
The two Quartets on this disc were written 45 years apart, and they illustrate two distinct modes of their composer. The First (1951) is in Carter’s expansive, high rhetorical mode. It is a very public statement in what is usually a private medium. (Think the Beethoven of the Rasumovsky quartets, for example.) Its phrases are often long and over-lapping, the sections clearly articulated and the instruments usually reinforcing each other, rather than the oppositional strategies of the Second and Third Quartets.
The Pacifica performance of the piece is long-limbed and taut. The emphasis throughout is on rhythm, and the drama created by the combinations of unison rhythms and starkly contrasted counterpoint. The intensity with which the Pacifica players push the driving rhythms of the Fantasia and Allegro scorevole movements makes the tranquil chords of the Adagio that much more tellingly expressive.
The Fifth Quartet (1995) is an example of Carter’s recent brand of meta-musical postmodernism (the Clarinet Concerto is another example). It is “about” how a string quartet rehearses, with phrases being tried out, passed around, and put aside. In contrast with the First Quartet, it is fragmentary and gestural, with thin textures and hints at ensemble playing. It’s far more condensed, with 12 sections in 21 minutes, as opposed to the 4 sections in 40 minutes of the First.
The Pacifica reading of the Fifth is intimate and shapely, with the fragmentary gestures carrying their full meaning the way people who know each other extremely well can communicate in mere phrases or with a single word. The performance underlines the shape of Carter’s musical gestures and their relationship to each other.
Naxos has provided a fine sonic design for these performances””every detail is clear and audible. The relationships between the instruments are always comprehensible. This disc is an excellent introduction to Carter’s quartets, in part because of the budget price. Highly recommended for fans and newcomers.