February 28, 2008


Carter: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 5. Pacifica Quartet. Naxos. $8.99.

Nielsen: Chamber Music, Volume 2—Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 for Violin and Piano; Prelude, Theme and Variations for Solo Violin; Preludio e Presto for Solo Violin. Jon Gjesme, violin; Jens Elvekjær, piano (Sonatas); Tue Lautrup, violin (solo works). Dacapo. $16.99.

      Every decade or so since 1951, Elliott Carter – who turned 99 on December 11, 2007 – decides to express himself through the string quartet, and in so doing creates a work of intensity, ingenuity and often-surprising lyricism. He is so good in this medium that two of his five quartets won the Pulitzer Prize for music: the second in 1960 and the third in 1973. Naxos is releasing the five quartets on two CDs, starting with a pairing of the earliest and most recent. The Pacifica Quartet plays this extremely difficult music astonishingly well. The young performers – violinists Simin Ganatra and Sibbi Bernhardsson, violist Masumi Per Rostad, and cellist Brandon Vamos – play as if they are blissfully unaware of the music’s tonal and rhythmic complexities. As a result, listeners will be less aware of these structural elements, too, and able to focus on the many emotions of the music. The first and longest quartet, which runs nearly 40 minutes, never seems to make up its mind between rushing forward and slowing down into halting rhythms. Simply keeping up with the changes – Carter calls the technique “metric modulation” – is impressive enough. But the Pacifica players do so while bringing forth the many rhythmic strands of the music, allowing listeners to follow as few as they like or as many as they can. It is all simply dazzling.

      But it is no more impressive than the Pacifica’s handling of the fifth quartet (1995). Carter has said that the first four quartets took him in one direction and so he decided in the fifth that he needed to go another way. What he did was to bring new transparency to the musical lines without in any way making them more obvious or easier to play. There is a playfulness in this quartet that is largely absent in the first. Its 12 sections rush or amble by in one to three minutes each, as brief character sketches alternate with peculiar interludes that toss bits of themes here and there in a manner that sounds aleatoric even though Carter wrote out all the notes. The interplay of order and disorder is infectious, and there is a sort of good humor to the whole enterprise that distracts listeners from noticing that this quartet is every bit as difficult as the earlier ones. Nor need it be Carter’s last: more than a decade has gone by since he wrote the fifth quartet – perhaps, as his centenary nears, he will address the form once more.

      Carl Nielsen is known far less for his chamber works than for his six symphonies and his opera Maskarade. But Nielsen did some interesting and unusual things in chamber music, and pieces other than his popular Wind Quintet deserve to be heard more frequently. Hence Dacapo’s survey of this music, which in its second volume focuses on the two sonatas for violin and piano (1895 and 1912) and two later solo-violin pieces that sound very modern indeed. Like the members of the Pacifica Quartet, the players on this Nielsen CD are young and seemingly unaffected by the daunting technical complexities of the music – thereby making it easy for the audience to hear Nielsen’s expressiveness as well as his difficulty. The first sonata, in A major, is filled with abrupt modulations and fast-changing themes that confused the audience at its premiere and enraged or baffled the critics. Today it sounds experimental, but scarcely dramatically so, with lines that flow well and clever instrumental interplay. The second sonata does not even have a key signature – it jumps all over the place, although it remains firmly tonal. It flows well but carries the short-theme approach even farther than did the first sonata. This second sonata remains an unconventional and even odd work – one that repays multiple hearings better than a single one.

      The pieces for solo violin are in some ways even stranger. Prelude, Theme and Variations (1923) is based loosely on Bach’s solo sonatas and partitas, but with many distinct Nielsen touches and a penultimate Presto variation that is one of the toughest two minutes a violinist is likely to encounter. The work mixes beauty with passages requiring a high degree of virtuosity, fully exploring the violin’s resources in a most satisfying way – especially when played as well as Tue Lautrup performs it. Lautrup does an excellent job with the Preludio e Presto, too. Written in 1928, three years before Nielsen’s death, this work is technically complex and makes no attempt to be bound by the conventions of tonality – yet it never sounds academic, but conveys emotion quite as skillfully as do Nielsen’s earlier and better-known pieces. It is a real pleasure to find so much of interest in this composer’s less-known creations.

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