Elliott Carter’s Five String Quartets/Pacifica Quartet

Four Lauds
String Quartet No.1 [1951]
String Quartet No.2 [1959]
String Quartet No.3 [1971]
String Quartet No.4 [1986]
String Quartet No.5 [1995]

Viviane Hagner (violin) [Four Lauds]

Pacifica Quartet [Simin Ganatra & Sibbi Bernhardsson (violins), Masumi Per Rostad (viola) & Brandon Vamos (cello)]

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 3 February, 2009
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

The Pacifica Quartet. Photograph: pacificaquartet.comIt was perhaps inevitable that the Pacifica Quartet be invited to reprise the cycle of Elliott Carter’s five string quartets that this group has given on several occasions on both sides of the Atlantic. Fortunate, too, in that this most technically assured of present-day ensembles has gone further than any other in making Carter’s music a natural, because audible extension of the quartet repertoire – following on effortlessly from the outputs of Schoenberg and Bartók.

The First Quartet (1951), at nearly 40 minutes much the longest of the cycle, evinced a near-perfect balance between driving intensity and portentous grandeur. Without undermining the stark contrasts between its four continuous movements – divided by brief pauses (exceptionally so here) into three parts so to preserve an overall continuity – the Pacifica Quartet scrupulously observed the ‘tempo modulation’ through which Carter ensures seamless momentum across the work’s greater span. Admirable, too, was the controlled momentum of the powerfully argued ‘Fantasia’, the glancing agility of the ‘Allegro scorrevole’, the intensifying contrasts of the ‘Adagio’ (the first instance of Carter’s predilection for equating instruments with characters in his quartets) and astute shaping of the final ‘Variations’, which never seemed prolix in its unfolding or became overbearing in its exhilarating onward drive.

The Second Quartet (1959), only half the length of its predecessor but correspondingly denser in its material being superimposed rather than linear, casts the players as a divisive, even dysfunctional foursome – compressing the expected four movements into a single, ongoing span and interspersing this with cadenzas in which the introspection, impulsiveness and sheer exhibitionism of viola, cello and first violin are offset by the rhythmic uniformity of the second. The Pacifica entered into the discourse with relish, the drawing together of moods in the ‘Introduction’ and ‘Coda’ having an almost Mozartean poise. If the actual movements seemed less arresting than the cadenzas between them, this was less a failing on the part of the performers than with the music’s in-built expressive emphases: certainly Simin Ganatra dispatched the final cadenza with uninhibited verve and panache.

The Third Quartet (1971) takes both the idea and the process of confrontation to extremes in its setting up an opposition between the duos of first violin and cello, versus second violin and viola in a continuous succession and juxtaposition of movement types that abound in vivid contrasts yet which are always appropriate to their context. Rightly unafraid of adopting a degree of expressive license, without which the piece can take on the demeanour of a bear-fight, the Pacifica players none the less gave the sheer velocity of the material its head right through to the seismic energy of the closing pages. No less admirable is the musicians’ refusal to use a click-track so as to ensure perfect co-ordination between the two duos – it being that sense of opposition constantly on the brink of anarchy which makes this Carter’s most graphic demonstration of forces operating in music no less intensively than in society.

Elliott Carter (b. 11 Dec 1908)The Fourth Quartet (1986) is yet the hardest to grasp conceptually – not least in that it was at first (and mistakenly) seen as a retrenchment in its seemingly more equable four-way dialogue unfolding over four outwardly traditional movements. Such apparent co-operation, however, does not account for the deft superimposition of ideas so that elements from each movement are mapped onto those that follow in a powerfully cumulative musical argument; one in which any real sense of a heightened ‘coming together’ is pointedly undermined by the fragmentation of the coda. Not a work ever likely to yield its secrets easily but the Pacifica Quartet adds appreciably to its understanding, refusing to rush the discourse and opening-out the textures so their inventiveness yet consistency can be fully savoured. The outcome is less Carter’s ‘late Beethoven’ quartet than a work defining what ‘late’ music can be.

The Fifth Quartet (1995) then marks the onset of Carter’s ‘late late’ idiom such as shows no sign of drawing to a close. In music where motif and texture are pared down to their essentials, the musicians made the most of its alternation of spontaneous and rigorous sections in which the characteristics of ‘rehearsal’ and ‘performance’ are directly juxtaposed only to be teasingly elided as the composition proceeds. That sense of tension and release is made the more capricious and engaging – the piece becoming a four-way dialogue which, running the gamut from propulsive dynamism to ethereal stasis, feels deeply human in that the responses required of the players mirror those of life itself. Here, more than after any of its predecessors, it is hard to imagine where Carter might conceivably take the genre next – which is perhaps why a ‘sixth quartet’, obliquely alluded to, has not yet materialised.

As an early-evening entrée to the main concert, Viviane Hagner gave finely attuned accounts of Four Lauds – a sequence which began in 1984 with the rhapsodic elegance of ‘Riconoscenza per Goffredo Petrassi’, continued in 1999 with flights of fancy ironic and trenchant for Aaron Copland and Roger Sessions respectively, before ending in 2000 with the warmly humorous ‘Rhapsodic Musings’ for Robert Mann’s 80th-birthday (the long-time leader of the Juilliard Quartet, a group that was such a champion of Carter’s music). To have the Lauds as a starting-point to the string quartets risked gilding the Carterian lily, but those who stayed the course responded with an ovation that was amply warranted for the musicians no less than the music.

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