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Elliott Carter Centenary Concert: Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), Alain Damiens (clarinet), Ensemble Intercontemporain, Pierre Boulez (conductor) Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank, London.  11.12.08 (AO) (MB)

Carter – Dialogues
Carter – Matribute, for solo piano
Carter – Intermittences, for solo piano
Carter – Caténaires, for solo piano
Carter – Clarinet concerto
Boulez – Dérive II

Note: Both Anne Ozorio and Mark Berry attended this important concert, so here we have an unusual seasonal bargain  - a  Seen and Heard  'Buy One, Get One Free' review.  Ed.

Anne Ozorio writes:

“I think the importance of music …is a sense that one can produce something that has a special and rather strong meaning, because we’re increasingly surrounded now by things whose meaning is cat food or God knows what…..the problem of consumer life has become universal. I don’t feel I’m writing for consumers. The wonderful thing about music is that you don’t consume –it’s something that is like a spirit : a lively spirit that gets into people and shows them all the different kinds of feelings they might have in life, even if they don’t experience them themselves.(Carter in an interview with Marshall Marcus, Dec 2008.)

Ponder and reflect on what Carter is saying, because it’s a key to understanding so much about modern music.  The more dependent society gets on “soundbite thinking”, the more we need music that makes us think and feel.  Carter’s music is not populist and probably never will be “easy listening”, but, as Pierre Boulez says, “A progressive and stubborn discovery with various and original means”. Music is a journey of awareness, which never ends, either for composer or listener.

This centenary tribute was in many ways a “meeting of friends” and communication.  Dialogues,for example, is based on a fairly simple cell of patterns but is the basis for a vibrant exchange between piano and orchestra. Sometimes they are in harmony, sometimes they disagree, but it is an engagement. It’s a concerto, but one with such a lively sense of surprise that it feels like a freshly-minted concept.  Aimard plays  with lightness of touch, to emphasise the good-natured humour. Boulez realises that the soloists have “voices” here as if they were characters. The cor anglais is particularly droll.

More on the theme of fellowship followed. Matribute was written for James Levine to commemorate his mother, and Intermittences refers to chapter in Proust where Marcel is overwhelmed by memories of his grandmother.  Both pieces are combined with Caténaires, written very recently for Pierre-Laurent Aimard who played it on the First Night of the Proms this year. Caténaires are the cables that link electric pylons, enabling the flow of electricity.  Personal relationships mean a lot to Carter. By combining the three pieces, he’s showing how people connect and react off each other.

Hence the incredibly rapid rhythms, like the constant hum of electric cables. There’s a “buzz in the air” so to speak. Also striking are the sudden switchbacks and changes of direction.  Each instrument is distinctly individual, yet they entwine like a cable, binding different but disparate threads into something new and strong. It’s a one-line piece with no chords.  As Carter describes it, it’s a “continuous chain of notes….a stream of semi quavers constantly fast but also constantly fluctuating in register and in smoothness or irregularity”. Then, suddenly it ends, not broken, but as if it’s leaped into another atmosphere.

Since the Proms premiere, Aimard has grown even deeper into the piece, playing unbelievably fast flurries of notes so they seem to fly off the keyboard with a life of their own. Ensemble Intercontemporain, too, is in a totally different league from the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Proms  The Ensemble was founded by Boulez as a specialist new music ensemble, each player chosen for his or her virtuoso status.  The clarity Boulez gets from them is phenomenal, as it needs to be in music as precisely defined as this : truly the effect was electric. Many in this audience were musicians of the first rank, who really appreciate what it takes to play at this level. The tumultuous applause that followed was heartfelt.

Commissioned by Boulez for Ensemble Intercontemporain, Carter wrote the Clarinet Concerto for the skills of Alain Damiens, the ensemble’s eminent soloist. Carter builds the piece around what he calls “family groupings” of instruments of different types, rather than the more usual blocks. Each of the seven movements has a distinct character, with sweeping swings of mood. Damiens moves between different instrumental groups, creating a level of unity, a “catenaire”, so to speak. The final part, the Agitato is vigorous, all the players in action but in discrete cells.

Choosing Boulez’s own Dérive II to complete the tribute to Carter was an inspired idea, Carter and Boulez have been so closely associated for so long that the piece extends the idea of confraternity central to this programme. But it’s significant on a deeper level, too. Even at the age of 100, Carter is still writing, still finding new sources of inspiration. As he says, there’s “late Carter” and “late, late Carter” !  Dérive II exemplifies that open-ended, ever-renewing approach to creativity. The spirit that drives Dérive II is the spirit that drives Carter.  This music isn’t pre-packaged consumer product “like cat food”, as Carter said, but “gets into people”, constantly growing in their psyches. It was a perceptive affirmation of Carter’s enduring vitality.

Dérive II grows out of Dérive I. Both explore the idea of continuous development from simple cells, but with five extra instruments the possibilities expand exponientially. Sounds interweave and morph, sometimes pivoting on a single note, presaging, perhaps the switchbacks in Caténaires. It moves, unfolds, spirals, like a plant shooting out of the soil, its tendrils unfurling, turning towards the light. There are even lyrical passages where snatches of near-melody flit past, tantalizingly elusive. It feels like being in an enchanted forest of sound, each tree, branch, leaf vivid and different. Sometimes the forest is dense, sometimes the music opens onto clearings that reveal new ways of listening. Like Carter's own music, Boulez's is vital and vigorous, still evolving. Perhaps there will be "late, late Boulez" too, if he makes 100. Cat food fans beware !

It goes without saying that this was an astounding performance for this orchestra is so acutely attuned to Boulez's idiom that it was quite magical. I hope someone taped it for Carter to listen to. He would beam with delight !

Anne Ozorio

And Mark Berry adds:

Elliott Carter Centenary Concert – Carter and Boulez: Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), Alain Damiens (clarinet), Ensemble Intercontemporain, Pierre Boulez (conductor). Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 11.12.2008 (MB)

Following the previous night’s Messiaen celebrations – in practice, at least as much a celebration of Boulez – the Ensemble Intercontemporain, its founder, and Pierre-Laurent Aimard moved on to Elliott Carter, for his hundred birthday. The astounding difference, or one of them, is of course that Carter is still with us – and still composing: unprecedented for one entering his eleventh decade.

Prior to the opening work, we saw a recorded interview with him, in which he was still very much the Carter of old, buoyed with enthusiasm for his most recent projects, including a clarinet quintet for Charles Neidich and the Juillard Quartet, and a flute concerto for Emmanuel Pahud. Carter poignantly expressed the hope that he might hear the latter, none of its first performances having taken place in America. Europe, he explained, has always been more receptive to his music, not least since broadcasting is not here – perhaps one should add, not solely – based upon the needs of advertising. If it is true, as Carter claimed, that he has more ‘friends’ in Europe than in his own land, we should consider that to be an honour. On the other hand, we should also consider how, in the words of Daniel Barenboim in one of several programme tributes, Carter ‘combines America with Europe’. This concert made a very good start.

, a concertante piece for piano and ensemble, provided a glittering opening. Rather to my surprise, and  despite Aimard’s predictably fine performance, I found much of the orchestral writing more compelling than the piano part – although perhaps this will change with greater acquaintance. As ever with Carter, there was an abundant sense of life, of joy. Poised midway between chamber and orchestral music, a work such as this is the lifeblood of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, whose performance could hardly be faulted.

With Matribute – ‘ma tribute’ – a short piece written for James Levine, to honour Levine’s mother, we reached the solo piano selection. I was taken with the contrast between melodic development, rising up through the keyboard’s octaves, and that characteristic Carter kinetic energy, both influencing each other and yet never quite merging. Intermittences and Caténaires were given what was described as the United Kingdom premiere of their joint existence as Two Thoughts about the Piano. If this were stretching a point somewhat, there was no need, since such fine piano writing needs no pretext for performance. It was, in any case, my first hearing of either piece. Aimard once again proved a spellbinding guide, though the silences (intermittences, as in Proust) and eruptions of the first piece. His fingers and feet – for here, pedalling is crucial, not least with regard to the middle pedal – were wholly at the service of the music and as communicative to the audience as one could imagine. The different ‘characters’ – always a key feature of Carter’s writing – were vividly portrayed, as was the more single-character nature of Caténaires. Its toccata-like single line spun if anything an even more gripping narrative, almost miraculously transforming the chordal instrument into a giant violin – solo Bach sprang to my mind – all the more to impress us with the variety of colours a single line can produce.

The Clarinet Concerto received an equally commanding presentation. Commissioned by Boulez and the Ensemble Intercontemporain, and written with Alain Damiens in mind – he and they premiered the work in 1997 – one could hardly have wished for a more authoritative or, again, vivacious performance. The five sections of the orchestra each had their opportunities to shine, to interact, to project their ‘character’ or ‘characters’, and they took them. Damiens and Boulez not only held the work together – Damiens literally moving around the stage, to interact with each group – but appeared to engage in a dialogue of their own, reminding us that this is a concerto, with considerable ambiguity concerning the relationship between blend and battle when it comes to the soloist and other players. Once again, there was energetic game-playing aplenty, but there were also oases of calm, the harmonies of the string-based Largo section quite ravishing, and unerringly placed in terms of the dramatic game-plan.

Where the previous evening, Boulez had presented his sur Incises, here we had the revision, completed in 2006, of Dérive II. The work was now double the length of the previous time I had heard it. In many ways, it seems Janus-faced, connecting back to the SACHER-inspired works of the 1970s and 1980s, whilst also showcasing much of his more recent harmonic and structural development. As ever, the overwhelming sensation is of proliferation, in every aspect of the music. It was also striking how every instrument in the ensemble – eleven instrumentalists: woodwind, strings, and tuned percussion, including piano – was given ample opportunity to shine; it would be invidious to single out any one in particular, though I must mention the echoes of the Rite of Spring in the bassoon writing. One aspect that somewhat surprised me was how frankly thematic much of Boulez’s writing proved to be. In this, the expert performance of the EIC, under his direction, contributed a great deal. The oft-elusive ability to find an ending, most definitely achieved in sur Incises, was again displayed here: rhythmically exciting in the lead-up to its final, unanswerable unison.

Mark Berry

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