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JACK Quartet, Wigmore Hall review – superlative Elliott Carter quartets | reviews, news & interviews

JACK Quartet, Wigmore Hall review – superlative Elliott Carter quartets

JACK Quartet, Wigmore Hall review – superlative Elliott Carter quartets

Young American ensemble gives agile and luminous readings of complex scores

The JACK Quartet – exceptional unity of tone and intentBeowulf Sheehan

At Wigmore Hall the JACK Quartet presented the complete Elliott Carter string quartets in a single day – an astonishing feat given the scale and complexity of the music.

One of Carter’s many achievements here is the self-sufficiency of each of his five quartets, the subtle issues of concept and form that each poses always comprehensively addressed. But the five quartets also work as a cycle, for the similar approaches the composer takes. The JACK Quartet crafted two satisfying programmes from the five works, presenting the Fifth and First in a lunchtime recital, and then in the evening playing Nos 4, 2 and finally No 3, the most radical and a fitting conclusion to the day.

Elliott Carter (pictured below) came to the string quartet medium with a narrow set of interests, but explored each thoroughly. He wasn’t interested in colours or effects, and there are few extended techniques here; even pizzicato is used sparingly. Nor is the music overly dramatic, only occasionally reaching out to dynamic extremes. Large-scale form is one of his interests, with each of these works following a complex and often radical form. His other preoccupation is the relationship between the instruments. In every work, the four players are given a measure of autonomy, and the composer sets himself the task of bringing them together without compromising their independence. This is where the JACK players excel, maintaining the autonomy of each of their lines, yet without compromising the unity of ensemble, and bringing clarity to often disparate textures through careful balance and interplay between the often unrelated counterpoint.

The lunchtime recital began with Quartet No 5 (1995). Carter took inspiration here from the experience of rehearsing with a string quartet, drawing order from chaos as the players gradually synchronise their parts. That tension is represented by interludes between each of the movements, moments of disorder from which the movements proper emerge. This was followed by Quartet No 1, the longest and most complex of the set. Carter here sets each player at a different tempo, which they maintain throughout, arriving at moments of consonance by apparent serendipity. Another asynchronous element is the movement breaks, which occur near, but not at the end, of each movement: After a brief pause, the music simply begins where it left off.

Elliott CarterQuartets Four (1986) and Two (1959) elaborate these ideas. The Second, in particular, increases the independence of the four players, who now portray characters, the first violin ornate and mercurial, the viola mournful, the cello impulsive, and the second violin steady and regular, the timekeeper of the ensemble. But despite their contrasting personalities, the similarities outweigh the differences, with the four instruments usually working together to outline the work’s relatively conventional form. In the Third Quartet (1971), the players are divided into two duos, violin I and cello; violin II and viola. The two duos play completely separate music, the four short repeating movements of duo one overlaid with six for duo two. Carter distinguished the two groups by having duo one play freely with rubato while duo two plays strictly in time, much like the different characters in the Second Quartet.

For this performance of the Third Quartet, the JACK players divided into two pairs, sitting at opposite sides of the stage. The score makes no such demand, but by creating this spatial separation, they were able clearly to distinguish the music of the two groups. That clarity was the defining virtue of all of these performances. The JACK Quartet are regulars at the Wigmore Hall, and they clearly know how to exploit its generous acoustic, but for focus and projection as much as atmosphere. The radical independence that Carter demands of the four players is tempered by the group’s exceptional unity of tone and intent. All four players have a rich, mellow tone, giving depth to the ensemble. Vibrato is minimal, used only to aid projection. That, combined with exceptional tone control and intonation, results in a clarity from each of the players that transfers to the entire ensemble. And there is no reticence attached to this precision – Carter’s radical forms often require sudden, impulsive outbursts, or switches from one music to another, sequentially around the group. The JACK Quartet do all this with an impulsive spontaneity that belies the huge amount of preparation these performances must have required. A stunning achievement all round, so bravo to the Wigmore Hall for such adventurous programming, and especially to the JACK Quartet for daring to take it on, and for bringing their trademark clarity and focus to each of these complex scores.


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