Most composers – and most listeners – see the string quartet as a civilised conversation. Not Carter (1908-2012). In his five quartets, which span nearly 50 years, the American modernist treats the four players as contrasting characters, whose interplay is a metaphor for co-operation and conflict in society.

Sometimes you hear them in harmony. Often they go their own way. This music is not for the faint-hearted: it demands an unusual amount of preparatory work from the musicians and a lot of patience and concentration from audiences.

With the groundbreaking First Quartet, composed in 1950, Carter hit upon “metric modulation” – the process of superimposing and juxtaposing speeds within a single musical flow, which dominated his oeuvre for the next 40 years.

It didn’t rule out shafts of lyricism and whimsy, as the Second Quartet’s introduction and Andante espressivo demonstrate: such examples are far more beautiful than Carter’s fearsome reputation would suggest.

By the time he wrote his last quartet in 1995, his aesthetic had become noticeably softer and more spontaneous, without losing its intellectual cut and thrust. The Juilliard Quartet was a leading advocate from the time it premiered the notoriously complex Third Quartet in 1973. Its interpretations of the first four quartets were taped in the early 1990s, and these are now repackaged with an equally definitive new recording of the Fifth – plus fascinating essays by two of its members, recalling their collaboration with the composer.

Elliott Carter

The Five String Quartets

Juilliard String Quartet

(Sony) 2 CDs

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