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Querulous quartets


Juilliard String Quartet

Christopher Oldfather, piano

Elliott Carter: The Four String Quartets

Duo for Violin & Piano

Sony Classical

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It's nice in itself to have a classical music recording with a live composer on the cover. On this CD there is Elliott Carter posing with the Juilliard String Quartet.

The quartet performs Carter's four string quartets. Also, there is a work for piano and violin.

This two-disc set is nominated for a Grammy award for best classical recording.

But what makes these recordings truly different are Carter's compositions.

He is a true modern, heir to 20th century composers such as Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Carter is considered the chief modern composer to take the early 20th-century neo-classical form and expand on it, his innovations starting in the early 1940s and continuing still.

His work is intriguing, unfathomable and engaging, all at once.

So let the listener beware: Familiar rhythm patterns and melodies aren't to be found.

What will be are insights into what exactly modern-era composers are chasing.

There are at least two schools about how to listen to Carter. One is to let the music do the work, and you do the listening. The other is to try to fully understand the composition's intricacies. For that there are measure and time guidelines in the liner notes.

From the start, there is no doubt this will be an unusual ride. To begin the String Quartet No. 1 (1951), the instruments all enter separately. Thereafter, variations in tempo emerge, in which one instrument's tempo might change and the others remain the same. There are interruptions _ periods of silence that in fact don't mark the ends of the movements.

There are places in the String Quartet No. 2 (1959) at which there might be some unity as the instruments try to join in together. But ultimately, they refuse.

The complexity continues: the String Quartet No. 3 (1971) has multiple on multiple movements.

The String Quartet No. 4 (1986) might be the most accessible of the group: it has four clearly defined movements.

The Duo for Violin and Piano (1974), however, is less clearly marked, and at times it is a polyrhythmic flood.

Obviously, this isn't music for casual listening. But if it is adventure in music you seek, try it.