For Juilliard Players, A First For Four Quartets

Posted: October 05, 1991

The Juilliard Quartet made musical history Thursday at the Free Library of Philadelphia when it played all four Quartets by Elliott Carter in one program. The four had not been played together in this country - although a European ensemble had done so once in England.

Carter's Quartets span 35 years, from 1951 to 1986, and although they differ widely in external characteristics, they show Carter elaborating a single philosophical viewpoint. His approach to the quartet form is the inverse of the tradition he inherited. He writes to clarify the differences among the instruments and players, rather than their concordances.

His players follow different harmonic, metrical, rhythmic and tempo paths. Those paths sometimes cross, but rarely merge, in conventional ways.

The notated scenario that each player follows creates a partial portrait, and the playing Thursday portrayed an ensemble at the top of its form, dazzling in its technique and admirable in its grasp of complexity.

By performing the four chronologically, the ensemble also stressed how little Carter's expressive range developed in a generation. He uses the same means to point a climax or change a mood. In more than two hours of music, the devices became repetitive while the instruments pressed farther and farther into the maze.

The Quartet No. 3 divides the quartet into two duos that whirl and fly independently in time and mood. The Quartet No. 2 asks that the players sit far apart to preserve their independence (although the Juilliard did not observe that direction).

The Quartet No. 4 summarizes in one unbroken movement the separateness of the quartet members in a vast musical landscape. So difficult are the tempos,

meters and split-second crossings - and the page-turns - the ensemble lost its way and had to stop. Where to begin part way in a piece so philosophically gnarled raises a question fundamental to the very basis of the music.

A paradox of this kind of writing, in which each player is isolated, is that listeners listen to individual players. Thus, cellist Joel Krosnick and violinist Robert Mann became heroes and conquerors in these readings, with violist Samuel Rhodes a thoughtful lesser figure. The quartet as an entity had vanished; virtuosic players competed.

The music's complexity sometimes conceals a romantic warmth in individual lines. Quartet No. 1 and Quartet No. 2 open with rich cello songs, and the cello often wins the most expansive writing.

The composer probably never imagined a program of all four works in a single evening, but the Juilliard Quartet saw in its long involvement with these works a striking way to celebrate its own 45th anniversary. A more demanding way of celebrating for musicians is hard to imagine, for Carter asks for their souls as well as the last ounce of energy. The program will be repeated Oct. 11 in New York, at the Juilliard School.

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