of America's most distinguished creative artists in any field.”
Aaron Copland talking about Elliott Carter.
December 2008 will be a great day for serious music and the
USA in particular as that is the date of Elliott Carter’s 100th
birthday. As part of their American Classics series this is
the first of two volumes of the complete string quartets released
to celebrate his centenary. Naxos has recorded Carter’s music
before with their successful 2002 Nashville recording of the
Symphony No. 1, Holiday Overture and the Piano Concerto
from the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, Mark Wait (piano) under
the late Kenneth Schermerhorn on Naxos 8.559151.
is highly regarded by the music world. Andrew Porter wrote in
‘Musical America’: “There is often wit and humour to be heard
in [Carter's] work; anger in some of the earlier
big pieces; increasing lyricism and beauty in the compositions
of the recent decades. He is America's great musical poet.”
At high school Carter was initially encouraged
by the composer Charles Ives who he got to know fairly well.
Attending Harvard University he studied with Walter Piston and
Gustav Holst later studying in Paris for three years with Nadia
Boulanger. After returning to New York, Carter dedicated his
life to composing and teaching, holding academic appointments
at several music academies and conservatories. Today Carter
is recognized as a major influence as a progressive composer
of 20th-century music with scores such as the Variations for
Orchestra (1954-55), Symphony of Three Orchestras (1976), Double
Concerto for harpsichord, piano and two chamber orchestras (1961),
Piano Concerto (1964-65) and the Concerto for Orchestra (1969).
in 1994 the Pacifica Quartet are making quite a name for themselves
in the chamber music world. They gained several prizes in prestigious
international competitions: the Coleman Chamber Music Competition
(1996), the Concert Artists Guild Competition (1997), the Naumburg
Chamber Music Competition (1998) and in 2002 America’s Cleveland
Quartet Award. In 2006 the Pacifica was awarded the important
Avery Fisher Career Grant. In addition to recording the complete
Carter string quartets for Naxos they are marking the Elliott
Carter centennial by performing all five string quartets at
a single recital on the 30 January 2008 for The Chamber Music
Society of Lincoln Center in New York.
On the evidence of a number of critically
acclaimed recordings and superb performances the Pacifica can
be ranked alongside the finest young chamber music performers
on the international stage. I have especially
enjoyed the Pacifica
Quartet’s set of the complete Mendelssohn string quartets
recorded in 2002-04 at Evanston, Illinois on
Cedille Records CDR 90000 082.
enthusiastically received String Quartet No. 1 is a substantial
and reasonably accessible five movement score that Carter acknowledged
had greatly enhanced his reputation - especially in Italy, France
and Britain. With the assistance of his second Guggenheim Fellowship
he composed the score whilst staying in Tucson, Arizona. The
opening movement, a Fantasia: Maestoso is largely
turbulent and agitated with the Pacifica finding
only brief glimpses of calm and a sense of solitude. The rapidly
rotating succession of short episodes like snapshots of the
first Allegro scorrevole is followed by the mysterious
air and dark foreboding in the second Allegro scorrevole.
The substantial and sparely textured Adagio is given
an interpretation that predominantly evokes the vast and bleak
expanses of the American prairie landscape. I experienced the
lengthy final movement Variations as a frenetic and unsettling
combination of episodes. A contrasting final section features
the solo violin singing a plaintive lament.
The String Quartet No. 5 (1995) is an example of one of Carter’s
more challenging scores with the listener having to work somewhat
harder for the undoubted rewards. The divertimento-like score
is cast in twelve short movements. The first is an Introduction
with the remaining five odd numbered Interludes containing
dense and relatively complex modulations here confidently performed.
The six even numbered movements I found more accessible commencing
with the anxiety-laden Giocoso. In the Lento espressivo
the Pacifica suggest a picture of the wind-shifting giant
desert sand dunes. There follows a skittering Presto
scorrevole followed by a robust
and mercurial interpretation of the Allegro energico.
I was fascinated by the eerie high harmonics of the Adagio
sereno and the final movement Capriccioso marked
by the wild pizzicato. The demanding technical effects
are taken in their stride by the Pacifica.
Elliott Carter’s string quartets are superbly served by the Pacifica
who play with assurance and an enviable unison. Their splendid
timbre is enhanced by the beneficial acoustics of the Krannert
Center, Urbana. I look forward to volume two with great anticipation.
with Elliott Carter by Alan Baker, American Public Media,