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Grant Chu Covell
La Folia, March 2012

The Pacifica provide a perfect homecoming for the everyone-for-themselves Second and the two interlocking indifferent duos of the Third. This disc pleases more than their prior First and Fifth… © 2012 La Folia Read complete review

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.

Allen Gimbel
American Record Guide, July 2009

Quartets 2 (1959) and 3 (1971) are related in their topics of simultaneity of discourse. 2 gives each player a stereotypical “character” (with intervals to match), while 3 expands on the idea by working with contrasting duos rather than soloists. The results demand the utmost in modernist academic concentration, from players and listeners alike. I think 2 is the more interesting of the two, though in some ways 3 is the clearer (paradoxically), despite the fact that it requires click tracks to enable the performers to stay together…Quartet 4 (1986) is set up in the standard four movements (soaring first movement, fragmentary scherzo, gelatinous slow movement, Presto finale evaporating back into the slow movement textures), but of course in the language of “mature” Carter.

Lynn René Bayley
Fanfare, July 2009

The playing of the Pacifica Quartet is consistently alert, alive, musical, and passionate…recommended for Carter enthusiasts.

Robert Carl
Fanfare, July 2009

As for these performances, once again the Pacificas take the crown on several fronts. The Ardittis have the only other cycle (on Etcetera), but it does not include the Fifth. Also, the Pacificas have far more extensive indexing of movements, which allows one to follow Carter’s formal argument much more closely. Their interpretations are Olympian, yet also suitably driven, catching both the abstraction and expressionism of Carter’s music. To take just one example, their performance of the Fourth, which seems quite intense and fast, is seven minutes longer than the Arditti’s (27:00 vs. 20:00). Listening to the latter, their version of the first movement is the proverbial bat-out-of-hell, and while exhilarating, it sounds as though they’re in a hurry to get it over with. My only quibble with the Pacificas is that their performance of the Third, while staggering in its control and attention to detail, doesn’t deliver the sort of emotional wallop at its ending that I came to know from the Juilliard’s premiere LP recording on Columbia. (Boy, do I fear that dates me!)

But this is overall a triumph of adventurous and stunning music-making, both in the composer’s creation and the performers’ realization. My critique of Carter’s quartets doesn’t dim my overall admiration, or my sense that this is likely the greatest quartet cycle we’ve had since Bartók’s. Add in the budget price for both discs, and this is by far the best way to get a monument of its era, and the single best introduction to Carter’s world one could imagine.

Steve Hicken, May 2009

The first disc (Naxos 8.559362) of the Pacifica Quartet’s traversal of Elliott Carter’s string quartets consisted of compelling performances of the First (1951) and Fifth (1996) Quartets, the bookends of the composer’s essays in the medium (so far). The current disc completes the cycle in fine form, and the two discs together document Carter’s development both as a quartet composer and as a composer in general.

These “middle” quartets track the composer’s journey through the explorations of the 1950s, the extremities of complexity of the 70s, to the cusp of his late late style at the end of the 80s. The Second Quartet (1959) marks a big step in the development of Carter’s musical discourse, in which the instruments embody individual expressive characters, delineated by unique musical vocabularies. The result is, to my ear, a kind of music that leans heavily on gesture rather than on theme. In this strong and expansive performance, the players of the Pacifica give the gestures of this piece the weight they need for the work to communicate its expressive content.

The Third Quartet (1971) remains one of Carter’s most complex structures, so much so that even some fans of the composer find it merely “complicated”. I like the piece quite a bit, and the performance here is a revelation—the players bring out the lines in each duo more clearly than I’ve ever heard before. I think this reading of the Quartet will cause some to take a new listen to it.

The Fourth Quartet (1986) is the most traditional piece in the cycle, at least in terms of its structure. The by-now-standard-for-Carter partitioning of musical materials between instruments is at the service of a Beethoven four movement structure. At first hearing, this is a far less vital work than the other quartets, but it grows on you, and there is much of value in it. The reading it is given by the Pacifica is strong and expressive.

Richard Whitehouse
Gramophone, April 2009

The Pacifica complete their survey of Elliott Carter’s music for string quartet

The Pacifica Quartet’s follow-up to its disc of Elliott Carter’s First and Fifth Quartets [Naxos 8.559362] (4/08) finds the composer exploring the genre’s potential for conversation and confrontation. The Second Quartet (1959) sees its members as a divisive, even dysfunctional foursome—compressing the four movements while interspersing them with cadenzas in which the introspection, impulsiveness and exhibitionism of viola, cello and first violin are offset by the uniformity of the second violin. The Pacifica enter into the discourse with relish, while at times evincing Mozartian poise. The Third Quartet (1971) sets up an opposition between duos of first violin and cello, against second violin and viola in a continuous and vivid juxtaposition of movement types always meaningful in context. Adopting a degree of expressive license, the Pacifica rightly give the sheer velocity of the material its head right through to the seismic energy of the closing pages.

The Fourth Quartet (1986) can seem a retrenchment in its more equable dialogue over four outwardly traditional movements, but this does not account for a deft superimposing of elements across movements in a powerfully cumulative argument; any final “coming together” being undermined by the coda’s fragmentation. Not a work likely to yield its secrets easily, yet the Pacifica—less pressurised than the Arditti, more flexible than the Juilliard and more secure than the Composers Quartet—add appreciably to its understanding. Both sound and booklet-notes are up to the standard of the earlier disc, thus making its successor an equally indispensable acquisition.

Trevor Hunter
NewMusicBox, March 2009

There’s a funny thing that happens when a cultural figure like Elliott Carter sees his own centenary: he outlives entire eras of musical thought and invective, multiples of them, many of which he was a major part of in the first place. From the scant number of Americana and neoclassical-infused works of Carter’s “youth” (mind that he was in his 30s when they were being written) to the torrent of works from the past decade, he has lived through the fads, lived past the fads, and arrived at the point where the fads had nothing to do with his music anymore. This is not to say that Carter is old hat, so to speak; the premieres, celebrations, and television appearances should be enough to disprove that. But rather that Elliott Carter, the man and composer, is no longer a symbol of anything particularly threatening to anyone. The man and his ilk do come from a period where a certain (exceptionally small, it should be noted) segment of society felt put upon by the dominance of his pedaled wares; but the Euro-tinged modernism he espoused after World War II eventually evolved into a new beast, one a little less anxious for philippics and lofty dialectics, and one with less control over acceptable discourse and fellowships. Musical artists in different venues have had less and less of a contra-Carter cause as time wore on. Sure, there are those around who hold long grudges, but those of us who are unencumbered by that history, be it through youth or culturo-political clemency, can afford to see Carter’s work through a prism that’s as unencumbered by outside factors as any composer has been allowed during their lifetime.

Which makes the works on the Pacifica Quartet’s second and cycle-completing disc an interesting case. Pacifica owns Carter’s five string quartets, as anyone who has heard them do the complete set in concert can attest. But for the Carter virgin, they can be a bit overwhelming, especially the three quartets presented on this disc. Even without historical baggage, the musical baggage is still there; is there any piece that’s more difficult in the quartet repertoire than Carter’s Third? More so than ever, Carter seems to have no interest in entertaining. Whether he does or not is more a consequence of the listener’s own inner mechanisms, but by surface-level appearances it’s not on his priority list. For instance, No. 3 starts out with an almost Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima—style sound wall, at least as much as can be achieved by only four string instruments playing only four-note chords, but while Penderecki was all about a visceral aggregate effect, Carter’s visceral effect here is a symptom of a musical dialogue. This is why it’s difficult. Carter gives you the gut punch only for a scant few seconds, after which he keeps demanding your full attention, defying those who would want to revel in the shock and awe. In fact, if there’s one single thing that makes these pieces particularly demanding, it’s this very habit of deprivation. Only in the third section of the 4th quartet does Carter show any sort of generosity to the audience, allowing his stringed actors to wallow in their dissonant, vitreous beauty for almost seven minutes.

But, if not generous, these pieces are still vivid and completely gripping. This is why Pacifica is the perfect group for these works—its interpretation steers the middle ground between the Charybdis of stale academic exercise and the Scylla of Ozymandias-style Great Work, and infuses the music with breath and life, screaming and raging. There is no denying that these works can be esoteric; but there is also no denying that, if you let them, they will tear you up. They writhe with irrepressible communicative intent. After all, these are highly theatrical works, conceived of as dialogues: The second and fourth sound like an argument between four excitable yet fairly reasonable participants, while the third comes across as a tragicomic scene between two couples, one pair trying to maintain calm over the second’s alkaloid-fueled agitation. There’s all the range of emotions one would find in a short play: drama, humor, passion, etc.

The pacing and sense of space is also more dramatic than musical. A character in a play isn’t going to repeat a line of dialogue several times to allow it to sink in, and neither is a string player in a Carter quartet. While this prevents the immersion in sound mentioned earlier, it allows—and, importantly, Carter allows it to allow—for constant flashes of beauty and aggression in the same breath, like an impishly skillful writer. Listen to the “Largo tranquillo/Andante Espressivo” in the Second Quartet, or conversely, the admittedly very brief allowances in the last section of the Third, before it all descends to hell. In the former, the sheen is punctured by stabs from the cello, while in the latter, the forward drive is ever so briefly stalled by darkly luminous intervals held in the upper register of the violins. Carter is actually using the lack of a literal narrative coherence in the abstract art of music as an excuse to perform even more acrobatics and emotive modulations, trusting the listener to intrepidly follow him along the jagged road.

Because in the end it is about entertaining you. He didn’t make a big show of it, but that’s actually exactly what Carter is trying to do during every moment of music he writes. But this is the idea: Carter’s middle quartets are entertaining pieces, but they’re not passively entertaining pieces, no more than you can let the emotionally piquant dialogue of a Bergman film wash over you and expect to get anything out of it. These works ask your attention, and your respect. Give both.

Mark Stryker
Detroit Free Press, March 2009

The Pacifica Quartet completes its cycle of Carter’s landmark string quartets with Nos. 2, 3 and 4 for the Naxos label , a companion to an earlier CD of Carter’s First and Fifth quartets [8.559362]. Carter’s quartets are famously knotty evocations of democracy in action, filled with argumentative dialogue, stubborn individualism and constantly migrating tempos. The Pacifica untangles the complexities and locates the emotional core with striking ease but without unnecessarily prettifying the music.

In the Second Quartet, arguably Carter’s most definitive piece, the Pacifica reveals an unforced muscularity that sounds positively relaxed compared to the frightening intensity of the classic 1960 recording by the Juilliard String Quartet. The Pacifica doesn’t make these works sound easy, but it does make them sound natural.

The Buffalo News, March 2009

The Naxos disc is everything Carter could want from his latter quartets.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, March 2009

The second, and concluding disc of the five string quartets, was recorded last year to honour Elliott Carter’s 100th birthday. His music has stood the test of time, Carter now the grandfather of America’s cutting edge in musical modernity. Dedicated to atonality throughout most of his career, I suppose it will be future generations who become fully attuned to his musical abstraction. Harvard had seen his early studies, but it was with Nadia Boulanger in Paris that his mature education took place. That mix of American and European influences found him without any developed musical objective and he had reached his 43 year before he completed his First String Quartet. There were a further eight years before he embarked on his Second, the Third and Fourth spread almost equally over the period that followed through to 1986. Musically it is a story of confrontation between instruments with scores of tremendous complexity, and exceedingly difficult so far as the performers are concerned, the Fourth at least showing some degree of coming together before the coda fragments such unity. The Third is notoriously difficult, the very differing rhythmic patterns that take place at the same time stretching the mental grasp of any group, and also of the listener. The Pacifica Quartet, relative newcomers to the international scene, take on the challenge with commitment, hectic passages calling on considerable left hand dexterity. Certainly they are a cut above previous efforts to record the quartets, and the engineers have created a well-detailed sound.

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