CARTER: Quartets 2, 3 and 4. Pacifica Quartet. Naxos 8.559363. 74 minutes.
The first disc (Naxos 8.559362) of the Pacifica Quartet’s traversal of Elliott Carter’s string quartets consisted of compelling performances of the First (1951) and Fifth (1996) Quartets, the bookends of the composer’s essays in the medium (so far). The current disc completes the cycle in fine form, and the two discs together document Carter’s development both as a quartet composer and as a composer in general.
These “middle” quartets track the composer’s journey through the explorations of the 1950s, the extremities of complexity of the 70s, to the cusp of his late late style at the end of the 80s. The Second Quartet (1959) marks a big step in the development of Carter’s musical discourse, in which the instruments embody individual expressive characters, delineated by unique musical vocabularies. The result is, to my ear, a kind of music that leans heavily on gesture rather than on theme. In this strong and expansive performance, the players of the Pacifica give the gestures of this piece the weight they need for the work to communicate its expressive content.
The Third Quartet (1971) remains one of Carter’s most complex structures, so much so that even some fans of the composer find it merely “complicated”. I like the piece quite a bit, and the performance here is a revelation””the players bring out the lines in each duo more clearly than I’ve ever heard before. I think this reading of the Quartet will cause some to take a new listen to it.
The Fourth Quartet (1986) is the most traditional piece in the cycle, at least in terms of its structure. The by-now-standard-for-Carter partitioning of musical materials between instruments is at the service of a Beethoven four movement structure. At first hearing, this is a far less vital work than the other quartets, but it grows on you, and there is much of value in it. The reading it is given by the Pacifica is strong and expressive.
There is so much for interpreters of these works to explore that I would be hardpressed to call any reading them definitive, but you could do worse than start with the Pacifica Quartet recordings of Carter’s string quartets.