These quartets are Juilliard specialties, and anyone wanting to hear this music played with a near ideal combination of virtuosity and humanity need look no further. Carter's quartets are not for the musically faint of heart: they are uncompromisingly thorny, intricate pieces that require lots of intense, dedicated listening. Very few people doubt their seriousness--or even their claims to musical greatness--but just as few people enjoy listening to them. Perhaps this spectacular set will encourage the adventurous to give them a shot. They're worth the time. --David Hurwitz
Juilliard here however reveals their sense of ultimate abandoned abstractedness in the Second Quartet(1959), a work which initially struck me as predating the First in gesture,scope and content. It is much more sparce,even dismal and bleak than the First Quartet without the overbearing weight and questioning violently spirit of the First. Juilliard I believe here understands this of the Second,however I'd like to hear Arditti play the Second today,with their penchant for independent role playing,violence and not afraid of making a noise,playing with guts unreservedly,for the independence of lines was an integral component of Carter's agenda here.
The Third leaves the First and Second in the dust, well some 20 years elapsed 1971,the date of the Third. And with Juilliard they turn the scope of this mind-boggling work apporaching symphonic shape with again, their large gestures always aimed at a traditional blending of timbres. Whereas Arditti would allow the shape of a timbre in the Third Quartet to expose itself.
The JQ performs these modernist masterpieces with a muscular, machine-like relentlessness, highlighting the structure. Their interpretation is masculine, in the traditional meaning of the word, while the AQ's interpretation is more lyrical and fluid, with broader vibrato, emphasizing feeling -- in a word, more traditionally feminine. If I had to choose one, I would take the Arditti performance, (and I agree that the JQ's tempo on the First is too slow) but they are both stellar.
However, there are other considerations. The recording quality of the Juilliard Quartet on Sony is magnificent, while the AQ on Etcetera is much less crisp and clear. And the JQ/Sony package is all you could ask for, with a 28-page booklet extensively explaining the works, even diagramming the notoriously complex Third Quartet.
I would hate to have to choose -- I heartily recommend both versions. But the JQ version, all things considered, has the best claim to being the "standard." You must hear it!
The Julliard's 2nd and 3rd Quartets are much more to my liking. However, they are completely blown away by their prior ( LP ) recordings of the same works in 1974 ( world premiere for the 3rd ), which are electrifying! I hope SONY considers releasing those recordings on CD at some point in the future.
RE the 4th; I've never warmed to this piece so I can't really say which ensemble takes pride of place. The Julliard haven't included the 5th Quartet ( 1995 ) since these sessions took place prior to Carter's completion of that work. The Arditti HAVE recorded it (Montaigne), making theirs the only complete cycle of Carter quartets available. Their 2nd & 3rd, although differing quite a bit in approach, don't seem MORE convincing than the 1993 Julliard ( the 1974 Julliard is, as I've implied, a world apart ).
Elliott Carter, for me, has composed the finest string quartet cycle since Bartok ( Brian Ferneyhough may be the next link in the "quartet chain" ). I urge people with a love for adventurous, well structured and moving music to check ALL of his work out. Currently 91 years old, he's certainly one of the most consistent composers in terms of the sheer quality of invention displayed piece after piece for the last half century. Nearly every one of his works since 1950 is either of ground-breaking importance ( Quartets, Double Concerto, Night Fantasies, Symphonia ) or at least of great interest ( Variations for Orch, A Mirror on Which to Dwell, Brass Quintet, numerous solo pieces ). I'd recommend starting with the Piano or Cello Sonatas ( mid/late 1940's ) if you still don't feel comfortable with composers working in a "serial" or quasi-serial vein but like Bartok and Stravinsky ( c. 1910-1930 ).