Carter: String Quartets Nos 1 & 5

WORKS: String Quartets Nos 1 & 5
PERFORMER: Pacifica Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: Naxos 8.559362
The First Quartet was a breakthrough piece for Carter, and pointed the way forward to the preoccupations of his mature style: most obviously his treatment of the four instruments of the quartet as distinct characters, and the kaleidoscopic rhythmic fluctuations. The Pacifica Quartet have clear recorded sound on their side, but aren’t as confident in their characterisation of the individual voices as the Juilliard Quartet (Sony – unavailable), or the Arditti Quartet. The Juilliard in particular bring a sense of scale to this enormous piece – it’s around 40 minutes long – with an almost Romantic sensibility in the sonority and phrasing, while the Arditti are cleaner and more precise in the rhythmic comings and goings of the music. The Pacifica fall somewhere between these two, and aren’t quite as observant of the changes of dynamic – sometimes it’s all relentlessly loud. Currently they have the field to themselves in the shorter and lighter Fifth Quartet, but again I miss the precision of the Arditti. Not that the Pacifica give an inaccurate performance of this Quartet: if I had never heard another version, I would marvel at the virtuosity on display: it’s just the lack of a distinctive musical personality that I miss.