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Elliott CARTER (1908-2012)
String Quartet No.1 (1951) [42:03]
String Quartet No.2 (1959) [23:26]
String Quartet No.3 (1971) [21:21]
String Quartet No.4 (1986) [29:00]
String Quartet No.5 (1995) [21:41]
Juilliard String Quartet (Robert Mann (violin I), Joel Smirnoff (violin II), String quartets 1-4; Juseph Lin (violin I), Ronal Copes (violin II) String quartet No. 5; Samuel Rhodes (viola); Joel Krosnick (cello))
rec. American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, New York City, December 8-10 1990 (Quartet No.1); May 28- June 15 1991 (Quartets Nos.2-4), and the Concert Hall of the Performing Arts Center, Purchase College, State University of New York, April 15-17, 2013 (Quartet No. 5) SONY CLASSICAL 88843 033832 [65:29 + 72:02]
A large chunk of this release is a re-packaging of the first four string quartets by Elliott Carter, which appeared in 1991 on a set of two Sony Classical CDs along with the Duo for violin and piano. The then first violinist and founding member of the Juilliard Quartet Robert Mann was well into his seventies when these recordings were made, but you wouldn’t guess from the technical prowess on show here.
Elliott Carter’s music is complex and uncompromisingly ‘modern’, but if you’ve already treated yourself to Bartók’s string quartets and found yourself seeking further heights of stimulation then Carter takes on this line and throws it about as far as anyone ever has. Carter’s complexity always works on a secure technical basis and with an eye to tradition, by which I mean he eschews tracts of textural experiment or special effects.
Recorded comparisons can be made with the Pacifica Quartet on Naxos (see review) in the First and Fifth Quartets and nos. 2,3, and 4 on 8.559363. The other main competitor for the Juilliard Quartet has been the Arditti Quartet, who brought out the first four quartets in two volumes on the Et'Cetera label, with the Fifth on an Auvidis/Montaigne disc. All of these recordings have fine qualities and none of them is by any means a dud. The Pacifica Quartet go in for greater extremes of dynamic which has its own feel of energy and excitement but can mean we miss the odd precious note at the end of a diminuendo. The Naxos recording has a nice acoustic halo to add perspective and dimension to otherwise close and detailed recordings. I haven’t managed to access the Arditti Quartet’s versions lately but from memory know they are pretty stunning. I’m not always entirely behind the way they heighten the ‘modernity’ of certain works, but in in Elliott Carter you do need their kind of accurate intensity.
I like the Juilliard String Quartet’s recordings, and this is a set well worth having, certainly with their fine new recording of the Fifth Quartet. The first four quartets do have a more romantic flavour than other recordings – not that the playing isn’t idiomatic, but there is a suggestion that the vibrato might have been turned down a notch or two to the advantage of the music. The Pacifica Quartet has its moments with a couple of sticking-plaster passages you can spot where the editing only just matches the score, but the Juilliards also have a few more desperate sounding moments, in the Third Quartet for instance, where grunts and audible frantic page turning gives the music a not entirely intended sense of drama at times.
This is indeed the kind of music best heard with the score in front of you – at least, not in concert, but certainly at home with a pair of headphones and a strong cup of coffee. A bit like an attempt at James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake you need all the help you can get, and a skilful reader as well as the text to hand is one way to help yourself cross the barrier from hopeless incomprehension to poetic appreciation. The composer’s own comments also help. When talking about the Second Quartet he described his music as “scenarios acted out by the players.” A conventional listening approach may therefore not be enough, and frustrated attempts to listen beyond the notes into the realms of association will be one of the reasons these works can be seen as a tough challenge. If you can crack this on your own terms then you’re well on the way to acceptance. Elliott Carter’s string quartets are pretty full on in terms of ‘music which consists entirely of wrong notes’, and if you are a newcomer you might find it a good idea to introduce yourself to the more digestible call and response of the Cello Concerto, or the earlier idiom of his Symphony. Once you’ve acquired the wavelength of Carter’s idiom and approached a meeting of minds in the shared experience – performer and listener – of these remarkable works, then your pulse may begin to race and your jaw to drop at the sheer clarity and intellectual fire behind this monumental sequence of quartets.
The Juilliard Quartet has a special connection with Elliott Carter. They premièred the second and third string quartets, and their association with the composer was based on a friendship which lasted for more than fifty years. Joel Crosnick writes a very enlightening and anecdotal portrait of the recording sessions, and Samuel Rhodes likewise opens the door to some of the technical challenges and their solutions when preparing performances of these pieces. Such texts are pure gold when taking on these works, and I applaud Sony for their attention to their client’s needs in this regard. At two-for-the-price-of-one this is an excellent moment to widen your string quartet horizons.