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Elliott CARTER (b.1908)
String Quartet No.1 (1951) [39:21]
String Quartet No.5 (1995) [21:11]
Pacifica Quartet: (Simin Ganatra (violin); Sibbi Bernhardsson (violin); Masumi Per Rostad (viola);  Brandon Vamos (cello))
rec. 16-18 March 2007 (Quartet No.1); 3-4 June 2007 (Quartet No.5), Foellinger Auditorium, Krannert Center, Urbana, Illinois, USA. DDD
NAXOS 8.559362 [60:32]


One of America's most distinguished creative artists in any field.” Aaron Copland talking about Elliott Carter.

11 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.

Carter 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). 

Formed 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.

Carter’s 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.

Michael Cookson

Note: Interview with Elliott Carter by Alan Baker, American Public Media, July 2002


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