Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Pacifica Quartet @ Wigmore Hall, London

3 February 2009

Elliott Carter’s reputation is one of an extreme modernist, on the cutting-edge of the avant-garde. Unfortunately for him the term “modernist” is almost as outdated as the term “avant garde”.

This presentation by the Pacifica Quartet was focussed, passionate and dedicated but the overall impact of the music itself was less than astonishing.

The works were written between 1951 and 1995 which would suggest a huge palette of techniques, but in terms of the actual sound-world of Carter’s String Quartets there’s nothing here that Bartok hadn’t already explored at least seventy-odd years ago. These five mammoth works are presented as the natural successors to Beethoven, Berg and Bartok forgetting that Webern and Xenakis represent more genuine innovations.

Carter’s ideas of closing off melodic and rhythmic cells in their own little compartments definitely provide a certain amount of arresting ideas, but too often spin off into what sound like conservative products of research rather than inspired volcanoes of feeling.

The music is highly aware of itself in that it changes direction once it has been on too straight a road for too long, and most of the ideas are very clearly presented, but there is a nagging sense of default staunchness from Carter when ideas are flagging.

There is a typically Carteresque moment in String Quartet No. 1 when the violins (presented like two serene religious mystics) try to convince the cello and viola (presented as disgruntled heretics) to convert to a higher plane of consciousness. Episodes like this occur throughout all five of the String Quartets, since there is so much splitting up into factions among the grouping of the music.

These are the most engaging moments, as well as some truly impressive solo virtuoso moments, particularly from Simin Ganatra on violin, and a deeply responsive performance from Brandon Vamos on the cello, throughout.

Listening to this dense, teeming music for three hours was like trying to enjoy five roast dinners in a row. You’d have to be very greedy indeed to appreciate everything on offer, but it was a bold and sincere attempt, performed with fire and incredible focus.

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