At first, the yoking of Haydn's "Joke" Quartet and Elliott Carter's latest Quartet seems workable only as a study in contrasts. But the Sequoia Quartet demonstrated Tuesday at the Japan America Theatre that there is a surprising resonance between the two.
Not that Carter's Fourth Quartet is a funny, or even relaxed, work. It plunges immediately into assertive dialectic, each part bearing its own witness to the rigor of Carter's musical thought. The argument is earnestly developed, with a debater's concern for formal propriety.
Though played in one continuous movement, Carter's Quartet is shaped very much like Haydn's, with musical weight similarly disposed. It also ends like the "Joke"--minus any hint of humor--in a halting series of reminiscences. The hesitant feeling at the beginning of the finale seemed the composer's responsibility, rather than any fault in the ensemble's dark reading.
The Sequoians exaggerated Haydn's "Joke" at every punch line, from the famous ending to first violinist Peter Marsh's rustically drooling slides in the Scherzo. But they also found tears behind the smiles in the Largo, the movement with the strongest emotional ties to the Carter.