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Elliott Carter: String Quartet no. 2 [1959]

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Uploaded on Jul 12, 2011

The Composers Quartet perform Carter's incredible 2nd quartet (in my opinion, the best performance - for what it's worth I feel the same way about their interpretation of the 1st and 4th quartets as well).

I. Introduction [0:00]
II. (I) Allegro fantastico [1:07]
III. Cadenza for Viola [3:46]
IV. (II) Presto scherzando [5:12]
V. Cadenza for Cello [7:09]
VI (III). Andante espressivo [9:02 ]
VII. Cadenza for 1st violin [12:34]
VIII. (IV) Allegro [14:16]
IX. Conclusion [18:57]

The Quartet no.2, completed in 1959, was commissioned by the Stanley String Quartet, but received its first performance from the Julliard Quartet in the following year. In the years following its composition, it received no fewer than three awards, the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Music Critics Award in 1960, and the UNESCO First Prize in 1961.
In the Second Quartet, the maturity initiated by the Cello Sonata and First Quartet bears fruit. Work on the quartet interrupted the composition of the Double Concerto, to which it is closely related in technique. Both are the result of Carter's further refinement of musical language during the late 1950s, marked by a three-year break in his output. This is most apparent in the highly compressed time-world embodied by the quartet. There are still 'themes', but here (and henceforth) these are no more than fragments, momentary characteristic assertions of the intervallic, rhythmic and articulative vocabularies of the individual instruments. Here Carter is composing against the traditions of the genre - each instrument has a unique group of intervals and a typical mode of musical behaviour, the quartet being concerned with varying degrees of relationship between the four parts. The first violin's music is virtuosic, assertive and fantastical by turns. The second violin plays in regular rhythms throughout, the character of its part described by Carter as "laconic, orderly...sometimes humorous". The viola's expressive lines tend towards the theatrically doleful, while the cello is given an impetuous nature, in music characterised by frequent acellerandi and decellerandi. Each instrument in turn 'leads' a movement, the others interpreting the gestures of the leader in terms of their own repertoire of intervals and articulations. Through the four movements there is a tendency for the parts to become more and more co-operative, the cello in the last movement drawing the other three instruments into a sweeping acceleration which leads to the quartet's climax (although even here, against a carefully notated accellerando, the second violin attempts one last assertion of its regular pulse). Against this move towards co-operation, the movements are separated by cadenzas (for viola, cello, and first violin) in which the instrumental characters become increasingly opposed: the viola's lamentations are answered with outbursts of "laughter or ridicule", the cello's expansiveness with insistence on regular pulse and constricting fixed-pitch schemes, and the fireworks of the first violin with silence. As in the First Quartet, the whole is 'framed', the brief Introduction and Conclusion presenting the characters of the instruments in polite companionship.

For all that it appears to be composed against the traditions of the quartet, Carter's Second Quartet projects a classical balance between form, process, material and expression. In it, Carter rediscovered a pair of four-note pitch collections which he had used for the first time in the First. These collections each have the property of containing all possible intervals between their members, and are hence often referred to as the 'all-interval tetrachords'. In these collections, the intervals are related in well-defined ways, and they are used in co-ordinating and framing functions throughout the work, often articulated as a referential texture, pairs of intervals linking all four instruments. The metaphor of conversation often used in association with this quartet is apt - the four instruments seem constantly to be inventing for themselves new figures of speech, appropriate and pointed responses to the statements of the others. This impression of improvisation in performance stems from the conversational ease with which Carter composes both with and against his chosen materials (although paradoxically over 2000 pages of sketches exist for this 62-page score).

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