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Charles T. Downey
Ionarts, January 2010

CARTER, E.: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 5 (Pacifica Quartet) 8.559362
CARTER, E.: String Quartets Nos. 2, 3 and 4 (Pacifica Quartet) 8.559363

…in this series each concert will feature a different ensemble, and the talented Pacifica Quartet, which has already presented a complete Beethoven cycle by itself elsewhere, set a high standard for the foursomes that follow.

With playing that favored subtlety over raw power, the Pacifica’s sound rarely felt forced in, for instance, the playful handling of op. 18, no. 6, from Beethoven’s early period. The air of restraint, especially the narrow, elegant ribbon of first violinist Simin Ganatra’s tone, was broken only in the gutsy off-beat accents of the scherzo and the emotional polarities of the alternately gloomy and restless last movement, “La Malinconia.” Some tempo choices seemed over-ambitious, like the fast movements of op. 74, from the composer’s middle period, in which short notes in running passages were occasionally blurred or dropped.

Programming Beethoven’s last quartet on the first concert of the cycle seemed odd, akin to reading the end of a book first. After the length and contrapuntal severity of the other late quartets, however, Beethoven’s op. 135 balances a wistful slow movement, played here with a sense of yearning heartache, with some light-hearted motifs in the first and last movements. Ganatra’s tone high on the E string became shrill and off-pitch at times, but all in all this was an impressively controlled performance that bodes well for the Pacifica Quartet’s plans to perform the complete cycle next season in London and New York. A single encore stayed with Beethoven, a lyrical performance of the fifth movement (“Cavatina”) of the op. 130 string quartet.

Bob Neill
Positive Feedback Online, March 2009

Elliott Carter, who is spending his 100th year on the planet, is among the world’s pre-eminent modernist composers and arguably America’s greatest. (Aaron Copland wrote some modernist music but the lion’s share of his oeuvre and all of it that most of us know him by is neo-romantic.) We are hearing a lot of Carter’s music this year, in concert and on records, but I am curious who is listening to and enjoying it. I am, but there was a time in my musical youth when I was unable to. I could neither ‘find’ nor fathom it, stuck as I was in the previous musical world. And from the perspective of that world, Carter’s music is even more alien than I once found Bartok’s. Carter is second generation modernist—or post-modernist, which is a fall step farther way from the security of the World Before. In a word, I heard Carter’s music, the string quartets in particular, as beyond the borders of music.

Generally new things in the world take some getting used to—but if they are genuinely new and not just aberrant, assuming we give them the time and attention they deserve, they will find us and change us. At the very least, they will make us hear them, ‘get’ them, as we like to say. They will cease to sound avant-garde and become music. I got Bartok in my twenties and Carter …later. When I head the Pacifica’s first volume of the string quartets released last year, I was truly shocked (nearly speechless, based on the shortness of my review!) at how much progress I’d made. I loved it. I passed my Arditti Carter CDs along to a friend and began pestering the Naxos rep about the second volume, which, thanks to the busy concert schedule of the Pacificas, brought on by the success of Volume One, didn’t get recorded until late 2008—and released until now.

The first thing I notice about both of the Naxos Carter string quartet CD’s is their delicious tonal quality. It does modernist music no harm to play (and record) it beautifully!

Quartet No. 2 (1959) is a continuous cycle or suite of nine short, highly inflected sonic poems separated by extremely subtle transitions. The first violin, viola, and cello get their own cadenza movements in which they are featured but not unaccompanied. The main impression we get from this quartet is the coherence of discontinuity (!) This is a powerful musical metaphor whose appeal grows on us the longer we listen. The acoustic space that the four instruments create among themselves also contributes to the appeal of the work. I can’t imagine this music achieving a fraction of its pleasure in a monaural recording.

Quartet No. 3 (1971) is a denser, more complex work. Six movements in which the four musicians play in duos—the second violin and viola and the first violin and cello—but the two duos play simultaneously, each with different and contrasting material. And while Duo II plays in strict time throughout, Duo I plays with considerable freedom. As we begin to learn to hear the piece, the two duos become more audible to us as separate entities—and then, later, the music created by the contrast between them becomes a fascinating whole. The experience is similar to listening to a fugue, but more difficult because the music is more complex. The music passes through several moods—some passionate, some meditative, some anxious—and often Carter will play one off against another, with, in effect, an agitated foreground and calmer, lyric background. These passages are extremely effective emotionally—once again suggesting the coherence of discontinuity. We are told in the notes that it took the Julliard Quartet a year of rehearsals to get this quartet right. While this is not surprising, the Pacificas give the impression they were born playing it. They truly own this music.

The difference between memorable modernist music and lesser fare is whether it can draw you into its world and not just dazzle you with it. Carter’s second quartet may not pull you in on first hearing but given time, it has the power to reprogram your brain!

Quartet No. 4 (1986) is structurally more traditional than Nos. 2 and 3—to begin with, it has four movements—but it is more challenging to follow. Each of the four instruments appears to have a different story to tell. Amateur ears will have some difficulty sorting them out, but the composite construction they create is an extraordinary thing to behold.

The music of Elliott Carter’s quartets makes better listening than reviewing, so don’t let my verbal struggles here dissuade you from trying it out if you are new to the composer. Carter is a musical giant we all need to know. At the very least he can help us understand and better evaluate the rest of contemporary modernism.

Colin Anderson
Fanfare, November 2008

The Pacifica Quartet has the measure of these challenging scores, and has played all five works as a concert. Thus this is a document of an ensemble that has the music in its blood.

To read the complete review, please visit Fanfare online.

William Yeoman
The West Australian, September 2008

This first volume is a knockout, featuring the raw, uncompromising String Quartet No. 1 of 1951 and the lo-less-challenging No. 5 from the mid-90s in searing focused performances. Carter fans and first-timers wanting to broaden their musical horizons will want to snap this up right away.

Robert Carl
Fanfare, August 2008

The Pacifica String Quartet has made a name for itself with an astonishing live concert feat, performing all five Carter quartets in one program. I’ve not heard them do this live, and regret it. This is the next best thing, though, and the back cover promises that this is the first disc of two for the complete set. If the follow-up is on the same level, this will be the preferred set for the foreseeable future…while Carter may yet surprise us (he’s only celebrating his 100th birthday this year, after all), the Fifth could be his valediction to the form, and it’s appropriate to reflect on these works and their discography.

The First, from 1951, sounds more like a masterpiece with every passing year. It remains revolutionary in its capacity to maintain previously unimagined levels of counterpoint, largely through Carter’s breakthroughs in control of rhythm and tempo…it’s grand, intense, and noble—and also full of charm, wit, and energy. The First sounds like an engagement with the challenge of the late Beethoven quartets finally met square-on, and no matter how complex, it’s never needlessly so…in the Fifth, Carter’s humor and dramatic instincts come to the fore. It consists of six short movements, separated by an equal number of interludes. What makes the work dizzying is that in the interludes, ideas from the movements are tossed around almost at random, as a metaphor for the process of rehearsal. And you really hear the difference between the two sorts of music…it would seem obvious that now the Pacifica wins on repertoire alone, not to mention the budget Naxos price. Fortunately, theirs is also a model for the current state of quartet-playing. Never before have I heard the First rendered so naturally that every return of themes and motives is as obvious as in the standard repertoire. There is enormous energy, precision, and warmth in this version (the latter a characteristic that many people doubt Carter’s music possesses; but I promise you, it’s there, and you hear it here)…I can’t wait to hear the sequel, in particular since the Fourth is the one work in the series that has never grabbed me, and I’m waiting to hear a version that finally proves me wrong…sound is spacious but never too reverberant. A great release, which I can only hope is matched by the sequel.

American Record Guide, May 2008

There are practical reasons for choosing these new readings of Elliott Carter’s string quartets over the Pacifica’s rivals. The Naxos set, issued in honor of the composer’s centenary, will contain all five quartets on two discs. That trumps the venerable 1991 set by the Juilliard Quartet on Sony, which only contains the first four quartets, and the Etcetera compilation by the Arditti Quartet, which stretches over three discs. Naxos thus enjoys decisive advantages over Sony in completeness and Etcetera in price.

With no disrespect to the Juilliard or the Arditti, I’d say there are aesthetic reasons just as compelling. They are evident from the beginning of the first track, the fantasia of Quartet 1. If you prefer a closer, wider, and clearer sound picture, you’ll find that the Naxos set sounds less distant and reverberant than their rivals’, with more spacing between the musicians.

And while the timings of the Pacifica are only somewhat faster than the Juilliard’s (39:21 for the five tracks against 41:45 on Sony), they choose sharper contrasts between the slow passages and the swift ones. The result is a much livelier one than the satisfying Juilliard performance without adding any disagreeable edge. On the contrary, the slow passages of the fantasia and the luscious adagio—and the lento espressivo of Quartet 5—are as exquisite and heartfelt as the Arditti’s, lovingly lingered on.

After hearing the new Pacifica reading of Quartet 1, I confess that the Juilliard began to sound somewhat homogenized. While the composer describes Quartet 5 as a valedictory, I find the Pacifica Quartet’s farewell to be sweeter, less solemn than the Arditti’s—the crucially placed giocoso and capriccioso segments are better reckoned with. Cellist Brandon Vamos, beautifully recorded and imaged here, brings ample weight to this interpretation, but violinists Simin Ganatra and Sibbi Bernhardsson are by no means compelled to fall in line. The tinge of their crystalline pizzicatos, mostly sweet, can also be playful. Sometimes Carter not only goes gently into that good night; he goes humorously. In a delightfully pliant and mercurial performance, the Pacifica Quartet also pauses and ponders the mystery of this journey.

If Volume 2 continues at this level, I’d place the Pacifica set at the head of the class.

Greg Cahill
Strings Magazine, May 2008

Both of these quartets are interpreted with great sensitivity and executed with tremendous skill. That success is due, in part, to the Pacificas’ intimate association with Carter and his quartets; the Pacificas performed the entire quartet cycle during a 2003 international tour and have worked closely with the soon-to-be 100-year-old composer to fathom the depth of his work. It’s a master class that has borne rich awards.

Davis Ods
The WholeNote, April 2008

Naxos has already begun to celebrate Elliott Carter’s centenary, with the release of the Pacifica Quartet’s recording of String Quartets Nos. 1 and 5 (8.559362). Composed in 1951 and 1995 respectively, these two works span nearly half of Carter’s incredibly creative career and give a surprisingly coherent snapshot of his development over four decades. The still young, but very well established Pacifica Quartet gives convincing and passionate performances of these extremely difficult pieces which are among the most daunting but rewarding chamber works of our time. I look forward to the companion CD which will complete the set of five string quartets. Other releases planned by Naxos for Carter’s centenary year include Toronto’s New Music Concerts performances of his recent chamber concertos Dialogues and Mosaic along with a number of solo works for violin, cello, clarinet and flute.

Richard Whitehouse
Gramophone, April 2008

The Pacifica are visionary and engaging…

The sound has ideal clarity and warmth… © 2008 Gramophone Read complete review on Gramophone

Bob Neill
Positive Feedback Online, March 2008

Elliott Carter (1908–!) is the dean of American modernism in its least compromising, most exploratory form, and it is fascinating to hear him in these two quartets (1955 and 1995) follow his own muse into the musical terrain we are now calling post-modernism. Because, in a word, he knows where he (and it) are coming from.

Carter’s string quartets are often where he is most compelling—though there are some other fascinating chamber works to track down, including a rich Sonata for Cello and Piano; and several complex concertos, one a Double Concerto for Harpsichord. The definitive recorded performances of the quartets since 1988 have been those by the Arditti Quartet, recently re-released (though not remastered) on Etcetera Records. But these new releases by the Pacificas (a second with the rest of the quartets is due out in late spring), in addition to delivering bold and infectious performances from this fine young quartet, are a dramatic demonstration of how much digital recording has progressed in twenty years. This Naxos CD is warm, clear, and ambient.

As his ‘date’ above reveals, this is Carters’s one-hundredth year on the planet—and he’s still actively composing. Even if you’re not (yet) a modern music enthusiast, the brio of these performances and the superb sound might just turn your head. A great release, which leaves me with nothing else to say.

The New York Times, February 2008

James Levine conducted the Juilliard Orchestra in the “Symphonia: sum fluxae pretieum spei” and the Cello Concerto, a very large mouthful of Mr Carter’s art and one that assuredly left these splendid young musicians and a packed Saturday night house at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater both satisfied and exhausted. The cellist Dane Johansen was brave and virtuosic and needed to be both.

The idea of Mr Carter as American-made makes sense. There are the reserves of psychic energy: the impulsiveness and aggression, the hard work achieved through high sophistication, the absence of neurosis. The concerto greets us with the musical equivalent of gunshots. The contrasting lyrical writing sings gracefully; it shines but without a hint of sweetness.

The “Symphonia” gathers three movements composed separately that together constitute an evening of listening all in themselves. Mr Carter makes no pretense of simplicity. He has that American knack for making complex constructions work. The Cello Concerto resembles a series of conversations between one instrument and different parts of the orchestra, from percussion to choirs of reed instruments to brass in little puffs of sound. There is an elaborate solo introduction and a big orchestra response at the end.

Mr. Carter and his audience create another microcosm of the America experience. People on Saturday, the concluding performance of the Carter celebration, struggled to find seats, so concentrated and intense was this sophisticated gathering. His music was being conducted by one of the world’s great conductors and a fervent admirer, and it is deceiving to call the Juilliard players a student orchestra. The difficulties were immense, and the attention required to deal with Mr Carter’s quicksilver changes in movement and color unabating.

Yet in the larger world of classical-music audiences—those who find comfort in Mozart, inspiration in Beethoven and exotic fantasies fulfilled in Ravel or the young Stravinsky—Mr Carter has virtually no audience at all. Like America as seen by some nations, he is famous, admired and not particularly liked. Also like many Americans in the postwar era, he was born into comfort, has lived in prosperity and functioned with a confidence bordering on impunity. Most of us want everybody to love us, but Mr Carter seems comfortable with the admiration of the chosen.

Americana of another kind began the evening with “Three Places in New England,” Charles Ives’s great essay on the powers and pitfalls of memory. Beneath an orchestral glaze of indeterminacy, 19th-century hymn tunes, marches and popular songs struggle to the surface and then recede. Ives does not prepare us for the endings of his movements. “The Housatonic at Stockbridge” simply trails away in midsentence. It is like waking abruptly from a dream.

Ives did things no European would have ever done because there was no European around to tell him he couldn’t. There is an element of Mr. Carter in Ives’s music but also a world of difference. Mr. Carter is an original, but he is no eccentric.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, February 2008

That I have yet to enjoy anything written by Elliott Carter matters not one iota, his exalted place in American music having stood the test of time. Grandfather to the nation’s cutting edge of musical modernity, unswervingly his life has been largely devoted to the concept of atonality. He leaves his music for future generations who may become attuned to his musical abstraction. Carter did once say that “each new piece is a crisis in my life”, but he has never looked backwards, and has been fascinated by a brave new and adventurous world. Having studied at Harvard his mature musical education took place in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, his return to the States leaving him without any developed musical objective. Indeed he was 43 when the First String Quartet was completed, and it was at that point we find the fully developed and committed composer. Almost lasting 40 minutes, he realised with concern that the work was probably too difficult to perform. It did not prove to be true, though it is a score of horrendous complexity not least in the realms of intonation. That the Pacifica Quartet are troubled in that sphere—as are most others—only shows that it is still a formidable piece to perform. They do successfully capture the Carter idiom with its jagged, dissonance and abstractions. Relative newcomers to the international scene, the Pacifica enjoyed a list of major competition successes which took them to many parts of the world. Since then they have been keen on promoting modern music, particularly championing the quartets of Carter which they have toured extensively in concert. The Fifth Quartet, composed forty-four years after the First, and when Carter was eighty-seven, is very different in structure being in twelve movements played without a break and ending in a state of questioning. Whereas the First is a heavyweight composition, the textures here are transparent, yet still unbending in their modernism. Obviously less fraught with difficulties, the Pacifica perform it with an easy familiarity. In total it is not a disc that asks you to love it, but one which forcefully projects a composer of the utmost integrity.

Peter G. Davis
Musical America, February 2008

New York—When he was a comparative Young Turk in his seventies, Elliott Carter used to complain that his music never received half as much attention at home as it did in Europe. A centenary can change all that, and even if Carter does not reach 100 until next December his music already seems to be everywhere, and being played by the most prestigious musicians. This week alone the Juilliard School has devoted its entire Focus! Festival to a Carter retrospective entitled “All About Elliott,” a six-part series framed by concerts conducted by Pierre Boulez and James Levine. A day’s pause in those festivities gave the Pacifica Quartet an opportunity to fill in with a nonstop performance of the composer’s five string quartets on Wednesday evening, a mighty effort presented under the auspices of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and held at the New York Society for Ethical Culture.

If such an undertaking is hardly unprecedented, it happens rarely enough to be considered An Occasion, an important event on a par with complete traversals of the Beethoven, Bartók and Shostakovich quartets. Like those scores, Carter’s essays in the form cover the long span of the composer’s creative maturity (from 1950 to 1995), and many commentators regard them as a spiritual autobiography that holds important keys to his stylistic development and rigorous musical thinking. Playing them all at one sitting is asking a great deal, perhaps too much, of all concerned, particularly of the string players who must be alert, responsive and at the top of their game every moment. Even at that the cycle, when played in order, offers the same kind of nutritional satisfaction that comes from consuming a superbly prepared banquet, with the epic No. 1 (lasting some 45 minutes) and the shorter but equally thorny No. 2 forming two very filling main courses and the other three, more modestly scaled, the comparatively lighter gourmet pleasures of salad, dessert and coffee.

To compose the First Quartet, Carter literally went into the desert—the American southwest wilderness near Tucson—and emerged with the most radical piece he had yet written, totally setting aside the popularist style of his early scores and exploring complex rhythmic and harmonic procedures bound to challenge both performers and audiences. It is still a tough listen, but the two elements that have always kept even the most daunting Carter piece firmly anchored in musical reality are already present. One is a striking visual image that inspired the composer, in this case the slow-motion collapse of a tall chimney that so vividly frames Cocteau’s 1930 film, “Les Sang d’un poéte”—a poetic metaphor that separates external time from dream time in both the movie and the quartet. The second element that anchor’s Carter’s work is the warm relationships he has always had with the musicians who respond to his idiom. He seldom writes a note without knowing who is first going to play it, and by 1953, when the Walden Quartet gave the Quartet No 1 its premiere, Carter had begun to tailor his music for the best talents in the business.

The Second Quartet was written for the Juilliard Quartet, which was entering its golden age in the early Sixties; no other group, I think, has more elegantly projected the work’s eloquent rhetoric as the four instruments assume distinct and separate personalities in an unspoken drama. Quartet No. 3 continues in a similar combative vein but this time the ensemble is split in two with violin 1 and cello versus violin 2 and viola. The musical conversation is more intricately plotted and tightly interwoven in the Fourth Quartet, which to some ears is the toughest and most densely argued in the series. The last score, which Carter says is definitely his final word in the form, makes an appropriate upbeat finale, written in the airier, more lyrically expansive manner that the composer has gradually adopted over the past two decades.

For sheer instrumental skill, note-to-note precision and unflagging energy, the Pacifica Quartet would be hard to beat in this music, which they addressed heart and soul. The Carter quartets already have an extensive performance history, with many distinguished interpretations and recordings, so it’s probably safe to say that the Pacifica’s approach may lack some of the death-defying intensity that other ensembles have brought to the music—perhaps partially the result of increasing familiarity with the idiom and hence a greater comfort level that can sometimes take the edge off it.

That’s a small price to pay for performances of such distinction and accomplishment, however. Happily they are to be preserved on a pair of Naxos CDs, the first of which has just been released.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group