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GET CARTER! The Music of Elliot Carter (II): London Sinfonietta, Oliver Knussen (conductor), Michael Collins (clarinet), Ian Brown (piano), John Constable (harpsichord), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Oliver Knussen (conductor), (additionally a film by Frank Scheffer and a concert by the Arditti Quartet at St Giles, Cripplegate), Barbican Centre, London, 14.01.2006 (AO)


With the Clarinet Concerto of 1996, Carter further experimented with the spatial possibilities of sound.  There are only seventeen players plus soloist, but they are treated as if they were emblematic of a larger ensemble.   The soloist moves from group to group no less than seven times, each time bringing the sub group into greater focus.   Meanwhile, the other players continue on the periphery, sometimes quiet, sometimes interjecting. Just as we have peripheral vision, we unconsciously listen for the outer edges while concentrating on the centre.  Silence, is part of the awareness, because anything can happen in a Carter piece.  It adds a different, almost parallel, texture to what’s being played.

In the Double Concerto for harpsichord and piano with two chamber orchestras the spatial configuration has a direct, integral role in shaping its dynamics.  The sound worlds of harpsichord and piano are so finely calibrated that the set up on stage extends the sonority.  You can hear a foreground, a middle ground and a background, and follow the intricate patterns to and fro.  Written for Ralph Kirkpatrick, the music stretches the boundaries of the harpsichord repertoire beyond recognition.  Carter revels in the instruments dry character.  It is particularly good for the “scurrying effect” of rapid fire note clusters the composer is so fond of.  Playing angular dischords and perverse patterns gives a unique, unworldly colour.  The effect, in painting terms, is of chiaroscuro, the harpsichord a pale, ghostly presence against the darker piano.

Each keyboard has its own surrounding sub colours.  The harpsichord has sharp dry sounds, like flute and trumpet, and metallic percussion yet directly behind it are double-bass and viola.  The piano has more reverberant companions, like drums, oboe, and bassoon, violin and cello.  The effect is of patterns within patterns, arcing lines soaring and replicating, like the intricate tracery of vaulted ceilings in medieval architecture.  Such sculpture is sometimes described as “music in stone”.  Never before has the comment seemed more true.

Stone though, doesn’t move.   The Double Concerto is striking for its sense of trajectory.  Tempi vary back and forth, sometimes crossing, sometimes appearing to disintegrate.  While composing, Carter was reading Lucretius, who wrote “All things keep on, in everlasting motion, out of the infinite come the particles speeding above, below, in endless dance…”  The music evokes perpetual motion, varying speeds and concepts of time.  Modern life is manic, 24/7.   International, real-time communications break down boundaries of place and time.  Science has shown us that Chaos Theory has its merits.  Thus, the Double Concerto’s take on time and motion is even more fascinating now than when it was written in 1961.  Amazingly, the music seems to live as if it were some kind of organic life force.  Certainly, Knussen, the soloists and the orchestra play it with a real sense of involvement.  Carter may have written with mathematical precision, but for him, music isn’t a laundry list of notes.  Rather tactlessly, he said to Conlon Nancarrow, “I don’t write like a machine for machines”.  The more we’re deluged by processes and propaganda, he told Frank Scheffer, the more we need organic, personal growth.  “My music”, he said, “is a picture of society as what it could be”. It is individual, non authoritarian, and with a human pulse.  When I listen to the Double Concerto, I’m struck by the intimate quality of the harpsichord.  It doesn’t stand a chance in terms of volume, but you make an effort to listen because it so bravely persists.  Like a river, it sometimes goes underground, but it doesn’t give in.

Perhaps this is why Knussen and his musicians play this superlatively.  Technically, they have the ability to present every note with surgical precision and to negotiate complex cross currents without losing a beat.  Yet they manage nuances of feeling that make it exuberant and vital, giving the human touch that means so much to the composer.  It’s not something easily copied by cheap, third rate bands.  There won’t be a budget recording of this in a long time.  That’s why I also attended the student concerts at the Guildhall, and even the cacophonic improvisation by an amateur orchestra in the foyer.  Musical experience matters, and without training it won’t happen.

Later in the afternoon, the Arditti Quartet gave a concert consisting of Carter’s First and Fifth String Quartets and Bartok’s Fourth.  The First String Quartet was Carter’s breakthrough into a distinctive personal style and is a crucial part of the canon.  The Fifth was written   for Irvine Arditti and represents the culmination of the series.  By including the Bartok, whom Carter knew personally, the Quartet covered the composer’s antecedents and current work in a short but well chosen programme.  Arditti himself was in good form, and if the present line up was less exceptional than in the stellar past, it was still a worthwhile, enjoyable experience


Anne Ozorio



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)