Performing integral quartet cycles of twentieth-century composers is not a new occurrence: the Emerson Quartet has performed Bartók’s six on numerous occasions, and the Arditti has done likewise with Schoenberg’s four. But no quartet has tackled the five (so far) of Elliott Carter in the course of a single evening – until now.
Over the course of last season, the Pacifica Quartet played Carter’s quartets in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, so the presentation of the cycle on this occasion represented quite a coup for the Edinburgh Festival in this, the composer’s 95th year.
How to characterise the Pacifica? In terms of the Carter performing tradition, its interpretative stance is – perhaps not surprisingly – closer to the Juilliard or Composers quartets than the Arditti: that is to say, projecting the human dimension of the music over and above its formal processes. Moreover, the evident technical ability of each member is absorbed into the wider prowess of the ensemble – endowing these performances with a four-way unity that shines through Carter’s quartet thinking at even its most oppositional. And, throughout these two-and-a-quarter hours of intense and demanding music-making, its belief in and commitment to this music was never in doubt.
As programmed, the quartets fall naturally into a ’single and two pairs’. The First Quartet (1951) is considered the first work in which the mature Carter asserts himself with a vengeance, yet its expansive rhetoric places it in a lineage going back to Schoenberg, and then to Wolf, Schubert and Beethoven. Its four continuous movements are strategically divided by two pauses into three parts, preserving the continuity in tempo transition that Carter pursues intensively here for the first time. The Pacifica brought real deliberation to the Fantasia, without always conveying its massiveness of sonority, then judged to a nicety the flowing fragmentation of the Allegro scorrevole and expressive intensity inherent in the Adagio’s opposition of violins against viola and cello. The lengthy concluding Variations are difficult both to articulate and to give a cumulative emotional thrust. Suffice to say that, despite passing approximations, the Pacifica captured its surging finality in no uncertain terms.
If the First Quartet inhabits a Joycean realm of many-layered possibility, the dysfunctional character interplay of the Second Quartet (1959) brings Samuel Beckett indubitably to mind. In certain aspects Carter’s most fully realised work since the Piano Sonata, this is also the most ’vocal’ of his quartets – in the sense that each instrument plays to its human archetype with absolute fidelity. What seems a compressed follow-through of the traditional four movements is interspersed with three cadenzas in which the introspection, impulsiveness and exhibitionism of viola, cello and first violin respectively are mercilessly exploited – not least by the rhythmic punctiliousness of the second violin, here less a pacifier than one who imposes uniformity. The Pacifica entered into the spirit of the discourse with relish, and if the ensemble movements were sometimes lacking sharpness of focus, then the drawing together of moods in the Introduction and Coda was achieved with an almost Mozartian deftness.
When it first appeared, the Third Quartet (1971) was considered a ne plus ultra of complexity in the medium. Time and familiarity have not lessened its challenges, though the panache with which Carter carries off the febrile but systematic opposition between first violin and cello, and second violin and viola cannot help but draw listeners – however unwillingly – into the musical fray. And, even without the aid of the diagram of movement overlaps frequently reproduced (as here), the course of the work is evident from the vivid contrasts of material thrown up as it proceeds. Contrasts that have led some quartets to opt for a rhythmic ’click track’ so as to ensure co-ordination and integration of the ’double duo’. Not so the Pacifica, who – rightly – relied on gestures between each pairing and the sheer velocity of musical material to keep the duos interlocked right up to the coruscating energy of the final pages. In many respects, this was the highlight of a remarkable evening’s music-making.
While it does not follow that the Fourth Quartet (1986) was in consequence a low-point, the technical and conceptual difficulties – of a work which bemuses musicians and listeners alike more completely than any other Carter quartet – were only provisionally solved. Part of the problem seems to lie in allocating specific intervals to particular players, but instructing them to pool character differences so that co-operation rather than opposition is the guiding principal. Parallel to this is the unusual (for Carter) movement trajectory, so that the Appassionato and Scherzando both run down from a starting-point of maximum intensity, while the ensuing Lento and Presto each builds to a climactic apex – with any sense of a heightened ’coming together’ undermined by the fragmentation of the coda. Tentative in the opening movements, the Pacifica brought the interpretation more securely into focus in its later stages, though this remains a work unlikely ever to give up its secrets easily.
And so to the Fifth Quartet (1995), the shortest and ostensibly the lightest of the cycle – but with a sharpness of focus and clarity of thought that banishes any sense of it being an old man’s trifling. The six movements are divided by five ’rehearsal’ interludes, in which the players allude to ideas and gestures already heard or soon to come. This gives the piece the overall feeling of a divertissement, alternately lively and thoughtful in expression, where character differences are reflected not in the opposition between players as in the subtle differentiation between movements. Such music calls for superfine delicacy and emotional light and shade: qualities that were supplied in no small measure by the Pacifica – the players’ attentiveness to such details as the variety of pizzicato techniques enveloping the final Capriccioso, or the very different kinds of musical stasis underpinning the second and fifth movements, confirmed an understanding of this Carter quartet as being distinct from any other.
So there it was – a remarkable evening in which the stamina of the players was only marginally less remarkable than the range and depth of their response to this involving music. The Pacifica should be encouraged to take these interpretations into the studio at the earliest opportunity. And maybe Carter will pen a sixth quartet, rounding off a cycle of compositions which are demonstrably among the most significant to have appeared over the last half-century. Taken as a whole, indeed, these pieces help define the struggles and aspirations of Western music during that time. For those of us present on this evening, the Pacifica Quartet added in no small measure to such an understanding.