Elliott Carter’s five string quartets, composed over a span of 45 years, are often grouped with those of Bartok and Shostakovich as foremost examples of the form in the 20th century, but I don’t entirely agree with that assessment. There’s much to admire in them–intellectual vigor, experimental touches, structural tightness, deeply expressive moments. But the works aren’t all of the same quality: the first three display distinctive instrumental personalities and emotional variety, but the last two (dating from 1986 and 1995) betray an ossification of imagination, as though American art music’s grand old man found himself stuck in the groove of the postwar modernism he’d helped fashion. And when they’re performed by musicians unfamiliar with Carter’s vision and language, they sound cold and stuffy, coming across as astringent mind games. The local Pacifica Quartet performed Carter’s first quartet in the late 1990s and has taken on the others, one by one, in subsequent concerts. Technically confident and musically probing, the Pacifica is very much in the mold of fellow Carter advocates the Juilliard and the Arditti, though it hasn’t yet developed the teamwork and give-and-take of those distinguished ensembles. But last November they played the entire Carter cycle in one evening in New York, a heroic undertaking considering the physical stamina and mental concentration required; the performance landed in the New York Times’s list of the top ten classical events of the year. The Pacifica will repeat the feat at Mandel Hall, presenting the quartets in chronological order with two short intermissions. Friday, February 21, 8 PM, Mandel Hall, University of Chicago, 1131 E. 57th; 773-702-8068.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robin Holland.