JACK Quartet reveals the granitic, knotty beauty of Elliott Carter

Mon Apr 15, 2019 at 12:40 pm
Jack Quartet performed Elliott Carter's complete quartets Sunday at Foofoo. Photo: Beowulf Sheehan

Jack Quartet performed Elliott Carter’s complete quartets Sunday at the Morgan Library. Photo: Beowulf Sheehan

Ensembles like JACK Quartet are so consistently fine that when they are playing music new to the listener, one has complete faith that they are making the music sound, not only as it’s supposed to be, but as well as it can be. And hearing them play something familiar can be an exciting chance to experience something played beyond what one had expected.

That’s what JACK delivered Sunday afternoon when they played all five of Elliott Carter’s string quartets at the Morgan Library.

The quartets are a high point in Carter’s inestimable career, and an apotheosis of the modernist approach to the form and ensemble. 

As with other composers, Carter’s quartets get at the core of his musical values. He began as a prototypical 20th century American nationalist composer, working in territory opened up by Charles Ives and Roy Harris. His major career began when he moved past that style and created a voice based around through-composed, expressionist dissonance.

He didn’t abandon his American style, but took his ideals about the country and made his own distinctive music out of them. 

Atarting with the transitional String Quartet No. 1 from the start of the 1950s, Carter abandoned the structural hierarchy of monophony in his quartets for an intense polyphony in which every voice has equal importance. For the composer, the string quartet was the place for a conversation among peers, without formal roles, and to him that conversation meant democracy.

JACK played the quartets out of order of composition, starting with the Fifth, followed by the Pulitzer-winning No. 2, then Nos. 1, 4, and concluding with the daunting String Quartet No. 3. One could hear JACK circling around all of Carter’s ideas, and also how Carter didn’t develop the quartet’s chronologically but took his basic idea and explored different variations on it.

The forty-five minute String Quartet No. 1 occupied its own set, bracketed by intermissions, and that became a reference point and a reminder that Carter’s knotty sense of beauty sounded as clear and fine whether the music was dense, or, as in Quartet No. 5, aphoristic.

There is a great deal of beauty in this music—granitic, modernist, brutalist beauty. His complex individual voice, which eschews repetition for a constant, mercurial flow, can give the impression that Carter was a radical, but he was firmly in the classical tradition as it existed contemporaneously during his lifetime. Before him there were Haydn, Beethoven, Dvorak, and Bartók. Playing that music with as gratifying a sound as possible was standard, and so it was right for JACK to play Carter as engagingly as possible.

JACK’s sound was what one would expect in music of Brahms—rounded, full, with a dark translucence. Carter’s quartets have had exceptional advocates like the Juilliard, Concord, Arditti, and Pacifica Quartets, but none has produced a sound as substantial and gorgeous in this repertoire as JACK did Sunday. And even in an age of ubiquitous virtuosity, their technical level is so high as to be  an achievement in itself.  To hear Carter played with every note perfectly in tune and with an etched articulation, every rhythm exact, is to hear his essence.

The clarity of JACK’s playing made the music more complex in the best sense. The quizzical antiphonies of Quartet No. 5, the energetic ideas and viewpoints of Quartet No. 2, and most of all the two different sets of musical material in Quartet No. 3, were all a torrent—there were so many fascinating, wonderful things happening simultaneously that one was pulled along, even if there was no way to grapple with every detail in the moment.

For Quartet No. 3, JACK split the two duos on opposite sides of the stage, with violinist Christopher Otto and cellist Jay Campbell on one side, violinist Austin Wulliman and violist John Pickford Richards on the other. Each pair’s music—not just different and unrelated notes and rhythms but tempos as well—was laid bare, it was two pieces heard simultaneously, two seminars in parallel ideas, all in one concept. It was great Carter, as was the entire afternoon.

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