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Lauds and Lamentations
Elliott CARTER (born 1908)

Oboe Quartet (2001)a
Four Lauds (1984 and 1999/2000)b
A 6 Letter Letter (1996)c
Figment (1994)d
Figment II – Remembering Mr. Ives (2001)d
Isang YUN (1917 – 1995)

Piri (1971)a
Oboe Quartet (1994)a
Heinz Holliger (oboea, cor anglaisc); Thomas Zehetmair (violin)b; Ruth Killius (viola); Thomas Demenga (cello)d
Recorded: Radio Studio DRS, Zurich, September 2001 and February 2002
ECM 1848/49 [46:38 + 33.49]
Though not unique in music’s history, Carter’s status is quite remarkable. His early works were clearly indebted to some sort of American Neo-classicism, as befits a Nadia Boulanger pupil. When about forty, he started re-thinking his music making. He thus patiently and painstakingly developed a new approach in which his music became more complex and often quite intricate. True to say that some of his first mature works are sometimes intractable. However, over the years, he became full master of his aims and means, and his music, while still very taxing and demanding, acquired a considerably greater freedom. This is evident in the attractive Clarinet Concerto and in the recent works recorded here. The most substantial piece is the superb Oboe Quartet completed in 2001. This compact piece in a single span playing for a quarter of an hour is packed with invention and imagination, and unfolds almost effortlessly. Though quite demanding, technically speaking, this very approachable piece is a perfect example of what Carter can now achieve without ever compromising, but with complete formal and expressive freedom.

The other pieces, most of them homages of various sorts, are quite short but vintage Carter. Four Lauds was not originally conceived as a cycle. The earliest panel Riconoscenza per Goffredo Petrassi was composed as early as 1984 to mark the Italian composer’s eightieth birthday, whereas the other panels were all composed between 1999 and 2000. The opening Statement – Remembering Aaron (1999) pays a bold, though friendly tribute to Aaron Copland whereas Rhapsodic Musings (2000) is dedicated to Robert Mann on his eightieth birthday. The cycle is capped by a lively Finale Fantasy – Remembering Roger (1999) paying homage to Roger Sessions. As a whole, thus, this cycle might be regarded as a sonatina for violin solo in which Carter unashamedly indulges in instrumental fancy. No easy stuff, though, but still quite accessible. A 6 Letter Letter for cor anglais is yet another free fantasy written for Paul Sacher’s ninetieth birthday and quite appropriately based on thematic material derived from Sacher’s name, worked-out with much imagination and instrumental resourcefulness. The cello pieces Figment and Figment II – Remembering Mr. Ives (2000) are again short studies exploiting the cello’s expressive and technical range. (Incidentally, I did not spot any direct allusion to or quote from any of Ives’ music. Maybe, there is none.)

Isang Yun’s Oboe Quartet of 1994 is his last completed work. This is obviously not the work of a failing mind. Quite the contrary. This substantial work also plainly demonstrates Yun’s full mastery of display in all his late works in which he achieves his hard-won reconciliation between Eastern and Western cultures. Old Korean music is never absent from Yun’s mature works, but its presence is suggested rather than bluntly displayed as a colour effect. The magnificent Oboe Quartet is no exception. A long meditative slow movement of great expressive beauty and sometimes recalling the sorrowful mood of Piri, is framed by lively, almost playful and fanciful outer movements. Yun’s last major work undoubtedly belongs to his finest achievements. The somewhat earlier Piri for oboe or clarinet solo is somewhat more experimental, at least in terms of instrumental technique: glissandi and multiphonics are fairly prominent, but never at the expense of expression. According to the composer, "the piece represents a convict confined in a prison and suggests that ... his spirit and thoughts are free to wander far and wide". This poignantly auto-biographical piece ends with a solemn, "earnest prayer" (the composer’s words again). The present performance of Piri plays for almost a quarter of an hour, which made me check another recording by clarinettist Eduard Brunner (on a Japanese disc: Camerata 32CM-46) which plays for about ten minutes. Holliger has a more leisurely approach, making more of the long-held notes and glissandi. Brunner’s reading is equally valid, but presents a more dramatic view of the piece.

The present performances are all excellent, technically assured, well prepared and lovingly played by musicians who have a long association with the music; and cleanly recorded in natural acoustics. A typical ECM release with excellent notes by Holliger and Philippe Albèra, that also include an illuminating interview of Elliott Carter. A bit short in terms of playing time, though.

Hubert Culot

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