Elliott Carter's string quartets have come at key moments of his career and often have heralded some important stylistic evolution. That's why this recording where the Arditti Quartet performs is so important for fans of the composer. The lineup of the Ardittis here are Irvine Arditti and David Alberman on violins, Levine Andrade on viola, and Rohan de Saram on cello.
The String Quartet No. 1 (1951) marked the beginning of Carter's mature career as a brazen modernist. Cast in three movements, this is music constantly on slippery metrical slopes with astringent harmonies. But what sounds so wild and out there at the beginning of hearing this collection sounds remarkably tame and traditional if you go back to it after hearing the later string quartets, especially the last movement "Variations" which approaches the "kinder, gentler modernists" who arose in the '70s and '80s.
It's with the String Quartet No. 2 (1959) that we find Carter's mature style, where instrumental lines are maximally separated in order to create the atmosphere of a dialogue. This is often called Carter's masterpiece, and it won a load of prizes, but I just don't enjoy it much at all. It just meanders. However, the String Quartet No. 3 (1971) is very impressive. It has the ensemble seated apart, split into two duos (violin and viola, violin and cello) which stay entirely in their own metrical and harmonic universes. It is a piece of constant action, sure to entertain if you are a fan of Carter's other busy pieces like the Piano Concerto. The String Quartet No. 4 (1986) has often been called the most enigmatic of all Carter's quartets, but I like it a lot. Though cast in a single movement, it consists of many varied sections, and abounds in references to the classical tradition. This work of Carter's late period also has much clearer textures, but with the same sense of rhythmic zest.
Elliott Carter's string quartets are often touted as the quartets to beat all others in the latter half of the 20th century, but I warn you that not all will find these the cat's meow, even if you enjoy a steady diet of modernism. Personally, I get more from Per Norgard's Fifth, Gubaidulina's Second, or Rihm's Third than any of the Carter quartets. And in fact, I find Carter's most entertaining string quartet to be the Fifth, which appeared a few years after this recording (the Ardittis perform it on a Naive/Montaigne disc). That's why I give the collection four starts instead of five, to try to tone down the hype.