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GET CARTER! The Music of Elliot Carter (I): Nicolas Hodges (piano), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Oliver Knussen (conductor), (additionally a concert at the Guildhall, a film by Frank Scheffer and a concert by the BBC Singers at St Giles, Cripplegate), Barbican Centre, London, 13.01.2006 (AO)


Festivals like this offer a rare opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of a composer’s work.  When so much effort has gone into designing an immersion experience for the audience, it would be a shame to simply précis programme notes.  What I’d like to do is perhaps explain why Carter’s music works for me and how this festival has enhanced it.

Carter, famously, is known as the composer who synthesized Stravinsky’s neo classicism with Schoenberg’s free ranging atonal ideas.  His appeal, however, lies in his originality. Form and rules are not as important as harmonic progressions, spacing of intervals, textures and polyphonics.  He juxtaposes soloists with groups, highlights cells within a whole.  His work pulsates with movement, sounds “growing” out of each other organically.  As in a busy city, many things happen at the same time independent of another: behind every window on a skyscraper, there’s a story, even if we can’t see it.  Even our bodies hum with different vital processes.  The spirit of Carter’s music, for me anyway, captures the vibration of life.

The first of the orchestral Occasions – Carter wrote only one symphony – marks the 150th anniversary of the State of Texas.  Such music calls normally for fanfares.  Carter subverts convention with warmth and humour, for here there are no less than 11 fanfare like passages reaching an exuberant climax, but ending in an ambiguous blip. In Remembrance, the second Occasion, a trombone solo, expressively played by Helen Vollam, seemed to evoke a deeply resonant human voice.  Many of its notes stood alone, floating in silence, like the slow tolling of a bell. The third Occasion, Anniversary, reflects on Carter’s wife, Helen.  Two main themes progress in counterpoint and complement.  Carter frequently cites Proust and Joyce, who wrote of time as seamless.   The Carters were together over fifty years, yet, as he wrote “only our love hath no decay”.

Oliver Knussen was closely involved with the writing of both Remembrance and Anniversary, and of the idea of performing the three Occasions as a group.  Together they cover a range of emotion and techniques, a kind of anti symphony.  It was beautiful to watch him conduct, for he did so with such elegance and economy, the orchestra responding to every nuance. 

In the Piano Concerto, Carter overturns the idea of a concerto.  The pianist isn’t there to decorate what goes on in the orchestra or vice versa. Indeed, he or she, (since Ursula Oppens was its great champion), is thrown against it, an individual against the mass.  Even without knowing the political background to the piece, it’s clear that it is a heartfelt exercise between opposing forms.  The piece starts with tentative steps on piano, like a young animal learning to walk, then gathers speed in the “scuttling” rhythm so characteristic of the composer.  It awakens the orchestra playing in blocks of brutal sound.  David Schiff describes passages as the “lava flow” of strings, a “climactic dust storm” and “poisonous gas clouds”, as if the orchestra represented something profoundly elemental, deeper than merely Berlin Wall imagery.  Nicolas Hodges intuitively gauges when to stretch his lines and when to pull them back, fencing away from the orchestra, using wit instead of force.  His part is gloriously free and lyrical, flying across the patterns in the orchestral line. He is not alone, but supported by seven other soloists, three winds, four strings, who also make forays of spirited adventure.  It’s fascinating to hear how the flute, for example seems to make its counterparts in the orchestra essay their own variations.  The orchestra is by no means monolithic, for there are multiple layers of texture, as if its members were trying to refashion the concertino’s inventiveness on their own terms.  There’s a passage in which a trumpet throws out a few short notes of exhilaration, then falls back.  It is remarkable seeing this Concerto performed live, because the sense of movement is visible as well as audible.  So much is going on, so many congruent and conflicting patterns and tempi, that watching the to and fro helps make the piece even more vivid.  Knussen has the full measure of the piece, conducting piano, concertino and orchestra separately. It’s no mean feat when there are so many conflicting cross currents of timing and pattern.  Towards the end, there’s an explosion of sound from the orchestra, and for a moment it seems that the piano has been blasted away.  I held my breath, watching Knussen count out the silence, beat by beat. Then the piano comes back, quietly, confidently, being itself.  It is a true coup de théâtre, totally original although unassuming.

At ten that evening, the BBC Singers, conducted by Stephen Cleobury gave a concert of Carter’s early vocal work and of the madrigals that inspired him.  For us it’s hard to imagine a time when madrigals weren’t part of the choral repertoire.  When Carter was a young man, seventy years ago, they were just coming back into circulation.  It was an interesting concert in that it demonstrated the composer’s early interest in polyphony and intricate patterns of sound.  Straight after hearing the Piano Concerto, it made me appreciate Carter’s adage that the past, present and future are always related in a continuum.


Anne Ozorio




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