The Elliott Carter bandwagon rolls on. As I write he is more than
101 years young and still composing music of vitality and intellectual
energy as this double CD amply demonstrates.
The first disc opens with a succinct, dramatic and scintillating
in one movement. The form of any of Carter’s
works is a cause for fascination and this work mainly falls into
the traditional pattern of fast-slow-fast-slow-fast. There’s
a major part for the percussion who, for instance, open the work.
The horn is used right across its range and Martin Owen who was
not the original performer is superb as is, as ever, Oliver Knussen’s
firm direction and the playing of the BBC Symphony. This makes
a marvellous start to the set.
Carter is of an age now where he still recalls meeting figures
like Ives and Edgard Varèse whose ‘Ionisation’
made such an impression on him back “in the mid-1920s”.
is in homage to Varèse.
Scored for six as opposed to thirteen players it include more
instruments, amazingly sixty-five in all. It removes the pitched
ones like timpani and sirens and adds exotic ones like an African
Darbouka and, making quite a coup at the end, the Chinese Opera
Gong. Metal, skin and wood are explored, all in a compact and
kaleidoscopic eight minutes. Varèse would have approved.
for 31 strings and Wind
for wind are related pieces both having been
commissioned by Ellen Highstein of Tanglewood Music Centre. Carter
calls them ‘Studies’. The latter is for 24 players
and is of one mood and of one speed but with overlapping chords
and textures which reminded me in places of Birtwistle. Some of
the sounds are deeply cavernous and stirring and the whole is
quite remarkable in its final effect. Sound Fields
basically just one 12-note chord and looks at it from differing
angles. It is inspired by the Color Field School of paintings
of Helen Frankenthaler (b.1928). The musical impression is one
of a vast, austere but beautiful and deserted landscape quite
in contrast with Carter’s more usual combative style.
I have never been much of a fan of Carter’s choral writing
ever since I took part in a distinctly dodgy performance of ‘Musicians
wrestle everywhere’. Not surprisingly for a composer who
rarely compromises his language, he found that singers could not
cope with his vocal writing, which is, in my book, too instrumental.
In 1967 he set John Ashberry in ‘Syringa’ now he has
returned to him in three settings wittily entitled Mad Regales
Unfortunately the wit does not seem to have travelled. It seems
to me that he misses the wit in the second one ‘Meditations
of a Parrot’ who can only say ‘Robin Hood’.
The others, ‘Haiku’ and ‘At North Farm’,
are interesting but the whole set could still only be taken up
by professionals of the most enlightened kind.
This double album contains two song-cycles both from 2009. On
Conversing with Paradise
is a setting of a complex text
from Ezra Pound’s ‘Cantos’ written whilst Pound
was imprisoned in Pisa. The work received its premiere in Aldeburgh
in 2009. It is intensely dramatic. It is scored for winds, a small
body of strings and percussion the writing for which, especially
at the start, reminded me, possibly a deliberate move by the composer,
of Varèse (again). This is a magnificent if austere work
and is wonderfully and clearly articulated by Leigh Melrose in
a well balanced recording. In a way this piece is the star of
the entire set.
The second CD opens with Retracing I
bassoon. There are two other tiny pieces with the same title,
the lyrical Retracing II
for horn and Retracing
for trumpet. These are chippings, as it were,
from earlier works, passages for the instrument which Carter feels
can stand alone. The first from the Asko Concerto
the second from the Quintet for Piano and Winds
and the third the opening salvo from the wonderful Symphony
of Three Orchestras
from 1976. Each is quite individual, superbly
played and full of vitality. The same applies to the extraordinary
commissioned by Fred Sherry who has played
a great deal of Carter including the 2001 Cello Concerto which
was dedicated to and inspired by Milton Babbitt’s own Duettini
Carter writes two equal length movements Duettone
which - to over-simplify - contrast sustained lines with wild
almost randomly extravert counterpoint. This creates a myriad
contrasting textures all in less than nine minutes. It’s
curious to me however that Carter maintains that the pieces can
be played as separate entities.
Carter has always enjoyed writing for unaccompanied instruments,
rather like Berio. CD 2 has three brief works called Figment
an imaginative sort of Fantasia. Figments
I and II both
for solo cello are available on a Naxos double CD and DVD (8.559614).
Here we have number 3, a very spiky little number for double-bass,
number 4, a more lyrical one for Carter’s favourite viola
and number 5 for solo marimba written as a present for his grandson.
Each is a virtuoso piece and is superbly played. It is difficult
to imagine how they could be bettered. They explore the facets
of each instrument and do so without a wasted note.
Cutting his music down to only the essentials, as well as tackling
solo instrumental works, a solo vocal piece for one of his many
champions, Lucy Shelton was an obvious move. Less obvious is that
he chose an expressionist text, to match an expressionist vocal
style, by Baudelaire whose writings Carter has himself translated.
This he has done quite beautifully; he is a fluent French speaker.
, which begins ‘Music oft seizes me and
sweeps like the sea toward where my distant star shines’
seems most apt for this, I am gradually realizing, most passionate
This album will act as a document for the future. These are superb
performances recorded under the eye of the great master and this
is nonetheless true of the Clarinet Quintet
. This is played
by the very players who inspired it and with the whom the composer
had regularly worked - The Juilliard Quartet and Charles Neidich.
The piece falls into five inter-connected sections roughly fast,
slow, even slower, very fast, and fast. The faster sections are
full of that jerky and if I may coin a phrase, wild but logical
Carterian counterpoint. The ending is typically throw-away and
The last major work of the set is the other song-cycle Poems
of Louis Zukofsky
. Zukofsky was one of America’s
leading poets who died in 1978 and whose work Carter has long
admired. There are nine poems in all and each is separately tracked.
Again Lucy Shelton is the singer and Charles Neidich plays the
clarinet. The cycle is dedicated to the poet’s well-known
violinist son Paul Zukofsky. The vocal line seems to me rather
stiff and uninventive and Carter makes little play of the poem
“Rune’/ruinin’/runs/Mexico”. The clarinet
part is athletic however and varied in register and texture. It
seems that Carter really enjoyed himself here but with the word
line of the voice seeming a little hemmed-in.
Nevertheless, for now, this volume which brings to a head the
series of Carter’s complete works is well worth exploring
although there are pieces here which one might not bother to explore
again. The highlights for me are the Horn Concerto, the settings
of Ezra Pound and the Clarinet Quintet. If you have the rest of
the series then you will need no persuasion but if you are new
to Elliot Carter then it would be best to look out for an earlier
volume first, perhaps for the orchestral works as they offer more
excitement and wonder.
Full track & performer listing
Martin Owen (horn); BBC Symphony Orchestra/Oliver Knussen
rec. 16 December 2008, Barbican Hall, London
for six percussionists (2008) [7.56]
rec. 12 February 2009, Jordan Hall, New England, Conservatory,
for wind (2008) [6.09]; Sound Fields
strings (2007) [8.53]
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Knussen
rec. BBC Radio, 16 December 2008
for six solo voices (2007) [6.53]
rec. BBC Radio 3, 16 December 2008
On Conversing with Paradise
for baritone and ensemble (2009)
Leigh Melrose (baritone); Birmingham Contemporary Music Group/Oliver
rec. 20 June 2009, Snape, Maltings, BBC Radio 3.
for solo bassoon (2002) [1.32]
Peter Kolkay (bassoon)
for solo horn (2009) [2.35]
William Purvis (solo horn)
for solo trumpet (2009) [1.57]
Jon Nelson (trumpet)
Rolf Schulte (violin); Fred Sherry (cello)
rec. 22 September 2009, Academy of Arts and Letters, New York
for solo contrabass (2007) [3.10]
Donald Palma (contrabass)
rec. 15 October 2009, Clinton Studios, New York
for solo viola (2007) [3.06]
Hsin-Yun Huang (viola)
rec. 22 September 2009, American Academy of Arts, New York
for solo marimba (2009) [1.57]
Simon Boyar (marimba)
rec. 5 September 2009, Queens College, New York
for solo soprano (2007) [2.28]
Lucy Shelton (soprano)
rec. 4 October 2009, Lefrak Concert Hall, Queens College, New
Juilliard Quartet; Charles Neidich (clarinet)
rec. 19 April 2009, Lefrak Concert Hall. Queens College, New York
Poems of Louis Zukofsky
Lucy Shelton (soprano); Charles Neidich (clarinet)
rec. 4 October 2009, Lefrak Concert Hall, Queens College, New