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Elliott CARTER (b. 1908)
Dialogues (2003)a [13:28]
Boston Concerto (2002)b [16:54]
Cello Concerto (2001)c [20:06]
ASKO Concerto (2000)d [10:38]
Nicolas Hodges (piano)a; Fred Sherry (cello)c; BBC Symphony Orchestraabc; Asko Ensembled; Oliver Knussen
rec. BBC Maida Vale Studio 1, January 2004 (Dialogues) and April 2004 (Boston Concerto, Cello Concerto); and (live) Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, April 2000 (ASKO Concerto)
BRIDGE RECORDS 9184 [61:22]


Elliott Carter’s longevity is remarkable, but his musical longevity is simply astounding, as these four recent-ish works, all written when the composer was past ninety, amply demonstrate. His recent music is by no means “an old man’s music”, happy to follow well-oiled grooves. Quite the contrary, for the composer still succeeds in taking his staunchest admirers by surprise. Of course, the intellectual grip on the compositional process is as strong as ever, but the music now displays the composer’s endless imagination, resourcefulness and hard-won freedom, with a considerably enlarged expressive palette that ultimately makes his recent music more accessible. At the same time it retains the high level of technical and formal complexity that characterises Carter’s music and that still challenges his performers. That one may now forget the intricate music-making to focus on the music itself clearly highlights Carter’s absolute mastery. In an interview with Felix Meyer reprinted in the insert notes for ECM 1848/9 (reviewed here some time ago), Carter said that “when [I hear] a work like the Double Concerto, I realise that I could never write anything like that now ... I wouldn’t have the patience to go through all those minutiae”. He is of course quite right, but this should not lead one to think that his recent music is simple and more intuitively conceived than his earlier mature output. It simply means that he no longer needs any intricately worked-out planning before writing down the notes, although he remains a fastidious workman that gives his music many a thought before writing it down. Carter’s music is still difficult - I do not think that any of his performers will contradict this - but it now possesses a greater freedom that eventually results in greater accessibility, as these four recent works clearly show.

The most recent piece here Dialogues dates from 2003 and is a chamber concerto for piano and small orchestra. The title clearly hints at what the music is about. This is a conversation in which partners agree and disagree, contradict each other or are obviously on the same wave length, with some unexpected thought creeping into the conversation from time to time. This, however, ends inconclusively on a low note from the piano. Nicolas Hodges, who gave the first performance, knows the music from within, and plays with remarkable aplomb. It is nevertheless encouraging to see the piece now taken-up by other pianists, such as Ursula Oppens, a dedicated champion of Carter’s piano music.

The Boston Concerto, dedicated to the composer’s wife Helen who sadly died a few weeks after the work’s premičre, was suggested by the opening lines of a poem by William Carlos Williams Rain (“As the rain falls/So does/your love”). As a result, the piece opens with a brilliantly scored pattern Allegro staccatissimo; referred to as the “rain-tutti” by Bayan Northcott in his excellent notes. This opening pattern and further variants of it will re-appear regularly during the course of a work that ends with yet another varied restatement. As might be expected in a concerto for orchestra (Bartók, Lutosławski or Kodaly), various groups of instruments are highlighted in the several episodes that make the piece, the tutti sections functioning as ritornellos of some sort. The penultimate section Maestoso, beautifully scored for violins and cellos, is the real climax of the work and is rounded off by a last restatement of the “rain-tutti”. The Boston Concerto is compact and gripping, packed with invention and imagination. It is one of Carter’s finest recent works.

The Cello Concerto is in seven clearly delineated sections, in which the composer “tried to find meaningful, personal ways of revealing the cello’s vast array of wonderful possibilities”. The scoring is remarkably sparing and transparent, so that the orchestra never obscures the soloist’s discourse. It opens with a declamatory passage by the cello, soon brutally interrupted by massive orchestral interjections, as if to stop the soloist from the outset. The soloist resists and soon launches into the ensuing Allegro appassionato leading straight into a skittish Scherzo. The next three sections Lento – Maestoso – Tranquillo function as the concerto’s slow movement, albeit one with an animated central section. The accumulated tension is eventually released in the concluding Allegro fantastico, in which vehement orchestral chords again try to silence the soloist “who signs off with an almost quizzical gesture”. The Cello Concerto was first performed by Yo-Yo Ma; but is brilliantly played here by Fred Sherry, who gave the European premičre at the 2002 Aldeburgh Festival - with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Oliver Knussen - and whom the composer regularly consulted while composing the work.

The ASKO Concerto, a concise concerto for medium-sized mixed ensemble, is laid-out in several sections played without a break and interspersed by tutti sections that get shorter as the music moves on: Tutti – Trio I (oboe, horn, viola) – Tutti – Duo I (clarinet and double bass) – Tutti – Trio II (bass clarinet, muted trombone, cello) – Tutti – Duo II (trumpet and violin) – Tutti – Quintet (piccolo, xylophone, celesta, harp, second violin) – Tutti – Solo (bassoon) – Tutti. Each episode is both a study in often intricate counterpoint and a study in instrumental writing, in which the instruments are sometimes used in somewhat unexpected manner, as in Duo II. Here, the trumpet plays long lines while the violin “chatters away in close-formation triplets” (Northcott’s words). This recorded performance by the commissioning ensemble is that of the world premičre in Amsterdam; but there already exist two other recordings of the ASKO Concerto: by the Swiss Ensemble Contrechamps on MGB CTS-M82 and by the Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra conducted by Peter Eötvös on ECM New Series 1817, both reviewed here some time ago.

All four pieces here are supremely conducted by Oliver Knussen, one of the staunchest champions of Carter’s music. Both soloists are fully in tune with the music and play superbly throughout. Magnificent recording, too, highlighting the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s immaculate and committed playing. This superb disc is a major release and an absolute must for all Carter admirers. Strong stuff, but immensely rewarding.

Hubert Culot



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