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Elliot CARTER (b. 1908)
100th Anniversary Release
CD: Mosaic (2005) [11.56]; Dialogues (2004) [14.14]
New Music Concerts Ensemble/Robert Aitkin
rec. live, Glenn Gould Studio, Toronto, 28 May 2006
Scrivo in vento for solo flute (1991) [5.32]; Enchanted Preludes for flute and cello (1988) [6.00]
Robert Aitken (flute)
Figment 1 for cello solo (1994) [6.16]; Figment 2 -Remembering Mr.Ives for cello solo (2001) [3.58]
David Hetherington (cello)
Riconoscenza per Goffredo Petrassi (1984) [5.51] for violin solo; Rhapsodic Ramblings (1999) [3.14] for violin solo
Fujiko Imajishi (violin)
Gra for solo clarinet (1993) [4.18]
Max Christie (clarinet)
Steep Steps (2001) for bass clarinet [2.40]
Virgil Blackwell (bass clarinet)
rec. Church of St.George the Martyr, Toronto Canada, May, October 2006
Interview with Robert Aitken [22.06)
Live performance of Mosaic [12.48] and Dialogues [15.13]
NAXOS 8.559614 [64.50] & 2.110257 [51.07]
Experience Classicsonline

This release not only comes with ten recent works, most of them quite short, but also a DVD making it even better value for money. 

Neither I nor anyone I asked could think of another composer who, in the entire history of music was still so active musically and intellectually as Elliot Carter at the age of 100. These pieces are challenging for performers and audiences alike and yet they reap astonishing rewards. 

I found it informative and useful first to watch the interview conducted in front of an enthusiastic audience in May 2006 on the DVD. It is conducted by Robert Aitken, the Canadian flautist and director of the New Music Concerts Ensemble. Afterwards I watched the live performance of ‘Mosaic’ before hearing it as track 1 of the CD. I was reminded of something I learned when I attended Carter’s 90th birthday concert at the Barbican and that is the extraordinary visceral quality of the music. Visually it is compelling. The effect of the swift movement of sound across the ensemble and speedy movement of bows and hands flashing across the stage is like nothing else I know.

‘Mosaic’ features the harp and is dedicated to the late great harpist of over fifty years ago Carlo Salzedo whom Carter knew and who made remarkable discoveries in the expansion of harp techniques. Carter admits in the interview something which all composers would agree with, that first the guitar and then the harp are the hardest instruments to write for. The utterly amazing Erica Goodman gets her hands and her feet around the strings and pedals fluently and effortlessly. She comes in for especial thanks from the composer who set her such challenges. It is a remarkable piece. Carter admits that its form is very free, rather like a fantasy, unique really. It’s a structure that makes sense especially as it gathers towards its climax one minute from the end and then offers its throw-away final bars. The studio recording on CD 1 moves along with a little more focus and clarity.

The longest work represented both on the CD and in a live performance on the DVD is ‘Dialogues’, completed in 2004. The title tells us that the ideas, sometimes melodies - often just chords - are passed between the piano and ensemble in a chamber music type conversation despite the fact that this is for an ensemble of sixteen musicians plus piano. Played in a single span it is possible to decipher a clear form. I hear an agitated opening movement beginning with a cor anglais solo which collapses into a slow section marked by dramatic crescendo chords in strings punctuated by piano. Then follows a brief, airy scherzo ending with a longer finale which mixes the tempi, brings back the cor anglais motif and ends with a whimsical coda. On the DVD the recorded balance is not that good and because the redoubtable David Swann has the piano lid up you not only cannot hear the instruments behind too well, but comically you can just see Robert Aitkin’s shock of white hair bobbing up and down behind it. The CD version is more incisive but Nicholas Hodges, the dedicatee when recording it for Bridge (9184) knocks a further minute off its duration resulting in a virtuoso but frenetic display in which certain passages do not have time to breathe. This is to me, the most Schoenbergian - a composer Carter quotes in the interview - of Carter scores.

Works for solo flute are not that common. The DVD touches on Aitkin’s performance of ‘Scrivo in vento’ which was stimulated by a sonnet of Petrarch and which, by coincidence received its first performance on the poet’s birthday. Its use of the lowest register at the start reminded me of Debussy and Varèse. Very soon extremes of register become significant, so much that the music becomes a dialogue of registers played by one person. I wonder though if the music’s rhythmic difficulties will take it out of the ability range of those who at present will happily tackle Debussy’s ‘Syrinx’ and Varèse’s ‘Density’. Perhaps … we shall see.

The flute features again in a duo with cello. It’s a work dating from 1988. ‘Enchanted Preludes’ uses a line of Wallace Stevens “….the enchanted place/in which the enchanted preludes have their place”. How to find the words to describe this or any music I don’t know. But I can say that it is crepuscular, skittish and yet the counterpoint is sumptuous and impassioned as it reaches its inevitable climax before collapsing. Quite extraordinary.

The other works on the CD all played so magnificently and with such commitment are for solo instruments which Carter has made a specialty of in recent years. Some are available elsewhere and sometimes I prefer the earlier version for example the first of the two ‘Figments’ for solo cello recorded by Rohan de Saram in 1994 (also on Auvidis Montaigne 782091). A seemingly argumentative piece as it flirts between contrasting registers. It’s apt that the second Figment should be subtitled ‘Remembering Mr.Ives’ as it was he who much encouraged the young Carter to continue with compositional studies. I rather prefer it, possibly as it appears a little more tonal with its quotes from Ives’s ‘Concord Sonata’ and ‘Halloween’. Needless to say both are brilliantly mastered by David Hetherington.

You might be tempted to think the remaining pieces on this disc as just chippings from the Carter workshop but although each is short in terms of length each does contain as it were a history, and is in microcosm the entire Carter experience. The first of the two works for solo violin ‘Riconoscenza’ was written for Petrassi’s 80th birthday and ‘Rhapsodic Musings’ is dedicated to Robert Mann for his “extraordinary, devoted advocacy to contemporary music”. Both pieces use ideas, as do so many Carter works, which on one hand can be aggressive and harsh, against those which are quiet and reconciliatory. The former piece is also quite elegiac in character. The latter seems as if it will a ternary form structure beginning aggressively fading into a quite passage of long held notes and double-stoppings and then reverting to aggressive patterns but Carter surprises us by inserting almost randomly quiet ones into the final seconds so that expectations are always surprised. Staggering well played by Fujiko Imajishi.

‘Gra’ is a scherzo-like concept, meaning ‘play’ in Polish and dedicated on his 80th birthday to Lutoslawski with whom Carter spent he says, many a happy hour, Max Christie captures the character of the piece brilliantly. Equally joyous and good spirited is the very brief ‘Steep Steps’ for bass clarinet and played by its brilliant dedicatee Virgil Blackwell.

This double album which comes with an anonymous essay, notes on each work by the composer and photos and biographies of the performers, offers amazing value and is testimony to an astonishing musical personality and to those who have dedicated so many hours to working with him and offering to us the fruits of their study. This music is consistent in style and full of integrity and even if you find it a difficult to grasp that is a rare commodity in much of the music of our time.

Gary Higginson 

Reviews of other Carter recordings on Naxos American Classics




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