Does music speak for itself? (Not if this blog has anything to do with it!) Most people would hope so, but I have to confess that I didn't grasp the simple idea behind Elliott Carter's String Quartet No.5 until I heard Mr. Carter explain it and, to put myself at risk of being contradicted, I doubt many others would either - unless they heard similar words of explanation.
The idea is a charming one. The work is structured in one movement as suite of six character pieces prefaced by and punctuated by an Introduction and four Interludes where the players 'rehearse'. That is why, unwary listener, you hear fragmentary passages followed by focused ones. The piece, therefore, enacts the process whereby a string quartet is practised and performed. Typical Carter!
The Introduction introduces us to the four individuals performing - a soulful cello, a pizzicato-loving viola, a lyrical violin and a harmonics-loving violin. They are friends and follow each other and engage with each other, allowing each other space to reveal their personalities.
As to the 'suite' itself, you will first hear a skittery 'Giocoso' where everyone enjoys themselves as themselves. Next comes a 'Lento expressivo' consisting of constantly changing chords where dissonance and consonance mingle. A 'Presto scorrevole' scurries (as the Italian term predicts!) as only Elliott Carter can scurry. The 'Allegro energetico' is full of passionate, dramatic speech whereas the 'Adagio sereno' aims at serenity with ethereal string harmonics shushing the pizzicato-loving viola. The viola has the last word, so to speak, as the others agree to end the quartet with a pizzicato 'Capriccioso'.