American Classics - Carter: String Quartets 2, 3 And 4 / Pacifica Quartet

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CARTER String Quartets: Nos. 2–4 Pacifica Qrt NAXOS 8.559363 (74:15)

In Fanfare 31:6, I wrote of the Pacifica Quartet’s release of Carter’s First and Fifth quartets: “A great release, which I can only hope is matched by the sequel.” Prayers are answered, though I have slight reservations this time, but based on the music rather than the performances.

Carter’s three middle quartets have distinct personalities, based on the fact that they are about “distinct personalities.” Specifically, the Second gives each instrument a prescribed character, and the piece becomes a chamber drama of individuals who interact in a variety of manners and situations. (Ives’s Second Quartet comes to mind as a predecessor, though Carter’s characterizations tend to be more subtle, concentrated, abstract, and involved.) The Third takes a similar idea, but now applies it to two duos (violin/cello and violin/viola), which have a separate set of movements that overlap with each other in a sort of macro-counterpoint. The Fourth is by far the most “classical”—indeed of the entire cycle, not just these three. While its first movement features a rhapsodic, almost wild violin cadenza against which the remaining instruments construct a continuous commentary, it becomes a far more coordinated texture of democratic equality between the voices as it progresses.

While I wrote with unrestrained enthusiasm about the music of Quartets No. 1 and 5, my reaction is more qualified here. No. 2 is many people’s favorite, and there’s no doubt it exudes great wit, virtuosity, and an idea of polyphony never really heard before. That said, I’ve always found the characterizations less perceptible than many, partly because Carter’s highly chromatic pitch language (despite the fact that the different instruments concentrate on different melodic intervals and rhythmic patterns) tends to homogenize the differences. Going back to Ives, I think more stylistic contrasts would make the point better. But I also know that’s anathema to Carter’s aesthetics.

No. 3 on the other hand, is the point where many folks gave up on the composer, but where I was (and still am) blown away. The Third is one of the greatest monuments of High Modernism. Yes, it’s unbelievably complex, but it has an intensity, breadth, and passion unlike almost anything else in the Carter output. One really hears the interaction, indeed the collision, between its worlds as they revolve around one another.

And then No. 4: I wrote earlier I hoped the Pacificas could convince me at last of its value, but while they push me to the edge, I still can’t make the leap. I do realize now that the first movement is one of those rare birds in Carter’s music, a piece based on the rigorous, almost obsessive development of a single motive. Likewise, the slow third movement and the increasingly fragmented alternation between outburst and silence of the concluding Presto have a memorable profile. But it still sounds forced, and I’m sorry to say, relatively empty to me in comparison to the other works in the cycle. I feel that Carter reached a point in the early 1970s where he understood his technique and was able to write large-scale works fluently, but he’d lost some of the reason and drive to do so. Several works that, again, people I know are passionate about, such as Night Fantasies for piano, Penthode for chamber orchestra, and this Quartet, seem to be going through the motions, but don’t reach the transcendent state one senses in other pieces. The good news, though, is that by the mid 1980s Carter began writing a series of brilliant miniatures (one can trace perhaps to the 1984 Riconoscenza for solo violin), which led him to his “late late” style, where a greater degree of clarity, concision, and wit has combined to produce more music of more delight than he ever produced before (we’re talking here about a composer working in the age range of 80–100!). The Fifth Quartet is one of the masterpieces of this period.

As for these performances, once again the Pacificas take the crown on several fronts. The Ardittis have the only other cycle (on Etcetera), but it does not include the Fifth. Also, the Pacificas have far more extensive indexing of movements, which allows one to follow Carter’s formal argument much more closely. Their interpretations are Olympian, yet also suitably driven, catching both the abstraction and expressionism of Carter’s music. To take just one example, their performance of the Fourth, which seems quite intense and fast, is seven minutes longer than the Arditti’s (27:00 vs. 20:00). Listening to the latter, their version of the first movement is the proverbial bat-out-of-hell, and while exhilarating, it sounds as though they’re in a hurry to get it over with. My only quibble with the Pacificas is that their performance of the Third, while staggering in its control and attention to detail, doesn’t deliver the sort of emotional wallop at its ending that I came to know from the Juilliard’s premiere LP recording on Columbia. (Boy, do I fear that dates me!)

But this is overall a triumph of adventurous and stunning music-making, both in the composer’s creation and the performers’ realization. My critique of Carter’s quartets doesn’t dim my overall admiration, or my sense that this is likely the greatest quartet cycle we’ve had since Bartók’s. Add in the budget price for both discs, and this is by far the best way to get a monument of its era, and the single best introduction to Carter’s world one could imagine.

FANFARE: Robert Carl

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8559363

  • UPC: 636943936320

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: Elliott Carter

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Pacifica String Quartet

  • Performer: Brandon Vamos, Masumi Per Rostad, Sibbi Bernhardssohn, Simin Ganatra


  1. Quartet for Strings no 2

    Composer: Elliott Carter

    Ensemble: Pacifica String Quartet

    Performer: Sibbi Bernhardssohn (Violin), Simin Ganatra (Violin), Masumi Per Rostad (Viola), Brandon Vamos (Cello)

  2. Quartet for Strings no 3

    Composer: Elliott Carter

    Ensemble: Pacifica String Quartet

    Performer: Sibbi Bernhardssohn (Violin), Simin Ganatra (Violin), Masumi Per Rostad (Viola), Brandon Vamos (Cello)

  3. Quartet for Strings no 4

    Composer: Elliott Carter

    Ensemble: Pacifica String Quartet

    Performer: Sibbi Bernhardssohn (Violin), Simin Ganatra (Violin), Masumi Per Rostad (Viola), Brandon Vamos (Cello)