COMPOSERS: Elliott Carter
ALBUM TITLE: Elliott Carter: The Five String Quartets
WORKS: String Quartets Nos 1-5
PERFORMER: Juilliard Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 88843033832 (new/reissue 1991)
Save one, these are not new recordings. Back in 1991, the Juilliard set down the then-complete Carter Quartets (Nos 1-4), under the composer’s direction, in readings of astonishing insight and technical command. Those performances are here joined by a recording of Quartet No. 5 made in 2013 with the Juilliard’s current line-up (Robert Mann and Joel Smirnoff have been replaced as violinists by Joseph Lin and Ronald Copes).
Listened to in order, it’s an impressive, invigorating experience. True, one’s natural reaction on being exposed to the opening bars of Quartet No. 3 (1971) is a strong desire to take cover behind your chair – few quartets have a more aggressive or rebarbative opening; but what follows is as absorbing and diverting a large-scale argument as you’ll find anywhere in that period.
The phrase ‘modern classic’ can be overused, but this release tends to confirm what has long been a growing suspicion: Carter’s is one of the vital quartet cycles of the 20th century, up there with Schoenberg, Bartók and Simpson. He rivals them in the way he continually challenges you to repeated hearings (in which you always discover more), puts the medium under pressure and extends its possibilities in richness of texture, inventiveness of thought, wit, quickness of mind (perhaps not so much in heart). His cardinal achievement, I suppose, is to have actualised the age-old cliché about the quartet, that the players are four individuals working together. Carter really made them individuals, whether by spatial separation (Quartet No. 2), giving each a different musical character, different material, different metre in the overarching ‘structural polyrhythm’. Opening up the argument, breaking up the surface, is what he’s all about. If Quartet No. 1 (1951) seems the most traditional, elevating improvisatory fantasy into epic tapestry, No. 2 (1959) takes the ensemble and atomises it and No. 3 projects it on a galactic journey. Nos 4 and 5, his ‘late quartets’, reflect on a lifetime’s garnered wisdom, which the Fifth (also excellently recorded by the Arditti) sends up with its initial ‘simulated rehearsal mode’ and its final sputterings of playful pizzicatos. An essential release.