CARTER: String Quartet No. 1 (1951). String Quartet No. 5 (1995).
Pacifica Quartet.
Naxos 8.559362 (B) (DDD) TT: 60:32.

Whew. Of all American composers, Elliott Carter probably has the most respect internationally. He has won the allegiance and championship of many of our best musicians. And why not? He has produced scores of stunning originality and intellect since the mid-Forties. However, one cannot say that the public loves his music, at least not yet.

The last doesn't really concern me. At this point, the classical-music public, such as it is, lags about a hundred years behind composers. I'm going to a contemporary-music concert tomorrow night, and I expect to come upon a small hall, at least half-empty. Too many of my favorite composers, many of them dead a few centuries, languish from neglect for me to worry about numbers. And if we talk about numbers, let us not forget that very few people in the United States -- even college-degreed people -- listen to classical music at all. Allan Rich was just fired from the Los Angeles Times, most likely because corporate regarded him as an irrelevant, non-revenue-producing waste of space.

I can't say that I have loved every piece by Elliott Carter I've heard, although his work through 1948 I consider among the best of its time, most of it neoclassical, supremely musical, even (in its own way) ravishing and strong. The music of the Fifties, which laid the foundation for his current reputation, took me a while, I admit, but that same musicality came through, especially in something like the Second String Quartet, and this kept me at the work of listening. From the Sixties on, my record of success has been even spottier, but, again, I keep at it, mainly because the rewards have been so great. Indeed, with his output from the turn of the millennium, I've hooked on to him again. Has he changed? Have I? I've no idea.

This CD represents my first acquaintance with both quartets. It will take me a while before I have either one of them under my belt. On the other hand, I "get" enough of them to want to make the effort.

From at least the sonatas for piano and for cello, Carter has enjoyed writing for virtuosos, with that heroic character we tend to associate with the Nineteenth Century. The First String Quartet is no exception. Carter composed it in part to clarify the new ideas about music that filled his mind. He wasn't certain it was even playable. One notes certain obvious models -- Ives, Bartók, Ruth Crawford Seeger, and, most strongly, Beethoven -- obviously, not in sound or idiom, but in psyche. Nominally in three movements -- fantasia, allegro scorrevole, and a variations finale -- the work really proceeds in four large sections (maestoso, scherzo, adagio, and variations) played without breaks, which don't necessarily correspond to the movement divisions. Indeed, the scherzo ideas come before the end of the first movement, and the two big pauses in the quartet occur in the middle of sections. Paradoxically, I think, this cutting against the grain of the music emphasizes the unity of the quartet, for the work comes across as one long-reaching statement, a single giant arch. Also, the thematic cells appear across sections, thus reinforcing the idea of wholeness. At any rate, from my listener's point of view, it makes more sense to me to discuss the work by its sections, rather than by its movements.

The quartet opens with a grand statement, one that announces the work's great ambition and scope. The cello begins solo with near-fanfares, reminiscent of the sarabandes in Bach's cello suites. A violin adds pizzicato riffs. The viola and the second violin steal in with long cantabile lines, and suddenly you find yourself in the middle of an intense allegro, with all the parts contrapuntally independent and the complex rhythms that arise therefrom. Carter has used the metaphor of a conversation to describe his later quartets, but it seems to me to apply equally well to this one -- four instruments, four individuals contributing their own matter in response to something one of them has said.

The allegro dissolves into the scherzo, allegro scorrevole, one of Carter's favorite markings. Scorrevole means "sliding," but I think that in the context of Carter's music "skittering" strikes closer to the mark. It sounds like mice scurrying. The scherzo grinds to a crawl, and we hit the adagio, with a passage recalling the quartet opening. We reach a paasage where motion almost ceases and time seems to suspend itself -- a Carlylean Centre of Indifference, if you will -- like listening to a whistling wind without feeling the rush of air. The lower strings try to get something going, but they again run up against the indifferent high strings and succumb, only to struggle again. Ives's Unanswered Question may have provided the model for what happens here. Music doesn't do well in stasis, and the end of the movement prepares us to move again, although it does end on a slow exhalation. The finale, Variations, I don't yet get. For one thing, I'm not sure of the basis for the variations or, for that matter, where one variation ends and another begins. I tend to hear in the movement variations of little bits, rather than a coherent theme, but at any rate I have an excuse to keep listening. The work ends beautifully, with the quartet, in a way, turned on its head. As the low cello began the quartet, the solo violin ends it, serenely soaring into the aether.

The Fifth String Quartet comes from 1995. It's probably Carter's last. Although he's still alive and actively composing, we celebrate his centenary in December. Compared to the First, the Fifth is a lot leaner, with a greater focus on individual instruments. The quartet brims with solos and duets, and all four instruments play together comparatively seldom. It also lacks the reach of the first. Carter is relatively (only relatively) laid back here. The quartet comes across as a set of fragments, or very short movements, varied in both tempo and character. Between these movements Carter has placed "interludes," mostly for a solo player. The material of these interludes comes either from the previous section or presages the following section. The liner notes talk about Carter's "playfulness," but if so, I'm not in on it. I do notice that Carter doesn't need to make the Big Statement and that he has pared back on the contrapuntal complexity. I find the quartet actually rather austere, despite such markings as "giocoso," "presto scorrevole," and "capriccioso." Yet, the quartet shares one major trait with its brethren. This is another conversation among the instruments, and furthermore more obviously such. Each player gets a chance to speak, and instead of the others taking sides or simply jumping in, one notes a kind of politeness, a willingness to hear what the other guy has to say.

The Pacifica Quartet turns in a fabulous performance, praised by the composer himself. They're not simply playing notes. They understand the thought behind the notes. They make music.

S.G.S. (April 2008)