March 05, 2009


Carter: String Quartets Nos. 2-4. Pacifica Quartet. Naxos. $8.99.

Bottesini: Fantasia “La Sonnambula”; Melodia in E (Romanza patetica); Capriccio à la Chopin; Melodia (Giovinetto innamorato); Tutto che il mondo serra; Introduzione e Gavotta; Meditazione (Aria di Bach); Nel cor più non mi sento; Ci divide l’ocean; Romanza; Variations on a Scottish Air “Auld Robin Gray”; Réverie; Introduction et Variations sue le Carnaval de Venise. Thomas Martin, double bass; Anthony Halstead, piano; Jacquelyn Fugelle, soprano. Naxos. $8.99.

     Leave it to Elliott Carter, whose music combines intellect with emotional appeal (although it leans more toward the brain than the heart), to create some of the most challenging and complex string quartets of the 20th century. Carter, who turned 100 on December 11, created a quartet every decade or so, starting in 1951. Every one of the five quartets is challenging to play and to hear – and every one in a different way. The Pacifica Quartet – violinists Simin Ganatra and Sibbi Bernhardsson, violist Masumi Per Rostad, and cellist Brandon Vamos – previously released the first and fifth quartets on a Naxos CD, and now brings its same apparent indifference to the works’ tremendous complexities to the three remaining quartets. A single hearing will not be enough for most listeners to absorb the intricacies of this music, but it will be plenty to create tremendous admiration for the players’ skill. In the second quartet (1959), Carter is at his most intellectual, constructing each instrumental part from different intervals and rhythms – and forms of expressiveness, so the work does not became a dry exercise in compositional technique. This quartet comes across as if the players are arguing much of the time, agreeing occasionally and eventually going their separate ways. Quartet No. 3 (1971) subdivides the quartet into two duos: second violin with viola and first violin with cello. The subgroups play different types of music simultaneously, but each duo gets to play all the forms eventually – again, an intellectualized approach to quartet writing; but again, the Pacifica players make it work sonically and conquer the work’s very considerable difficulties with enough ease to leave room for expressiveness. Carter’s fourth quartet (1986) reverts to traditional four-movement form, but proves surprisingly hard to listen to, with harmonies that do not lie easily in the ear and a series of dramatic contrasts between sound and silence. It is not always clear whether Carter is writing quartets (or other music) for connoisseurs or the general public; certainly these quartets are not “easy” music in any sense, but they have genuine emotive power that may take a while to perceive but that emerges effectively when they are played as well as the Pacifica Quartet plays them.

     The playing is also outstanding in the latest Naxos rerelease of Thomas Martin’s renditions of double-bass music by 19th-century virtuoso Giovanni Bottesini. But this CD, originally released more than a decade ago, is filled with salon pieces rather than ones that boost the brain cells. This does not mean the works are easy to play – quite the opposite! – and it does not mean they are uniformly soothing: several are sit-up-and-take-notice spectacles or highly demanding encore-like quickies. In fact, two of the works – Capriccio à la Chopin and Nel cor più non mi sento (variations on a theme by Paisiello) – require great leaps between high and low notes that must be especially impressive to see in concert. Four of the works here – Melodia (Giovinetto innamorato), Tutto che il mondo serra, Ci divide l’ocean and Romanza – include vocal parts and would have been effective art songs in Bottesini’s time. Ci divide l’ocean is especially moving. The most interesting works on this CD, though, are strictly instrumental. They are Fantasia “La Sonnambula,” an early work that helped make Bottesini famous and that effectively merges Bellini’s rather delicate opera tunes into the double-bass register without depriving them of their charm; and Introduction et Variations sue le Carnaval de Venise, a showstopper if there ever was one, in which Martin’s ability to maintain equanimity and a flowing line through some truly amazing acrobatics is quite outstanding. Anthony Halstead provides top-notch piano accompaniment, and Jacquelyn Fugelle sings the four songs with sensitivity and feeling, but this is Martin’s disc through and through – and a perfect demonstration that, in the right hands and under the right fingers, the double bass is anything but a lumbering instrument.

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