Elliott CARTER (b.1908)
Complete works - Volume 8 - 16 compositions: 2002-2009
Full tracklisting at end of review
BRIDGE 9314 A/B [49.29 + 53.42]
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 Horn Concerto 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”. Tintinnabulations 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.
Sound Fieldsfor 31 strings and Wind Rosefor 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 exploits 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 Ifor solo bassoon. There are two other tiny pieces with the same title, the lyrical Retracing IIfor horn and Retracing IIIfor 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 of 2000, the second from the Quintet for Piano and Winds of 1991 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 Due Duetti 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 and Duettino 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. FigmentsI 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. La Musique, 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 composer.
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 very witty.
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.
Gary Higginson 

Full tracklisting
CD 1
Horn Concerto (2002) [10.32]
Martin Owen (horn); BBC Symphony Orchestra/Oliver Knussen
rec. 16 December 2008, Barbican Hall, London
Tintinnabulations for six percussionists (2008) [7.56]
rec. 12 February 2009, Jordan Hall, New England, Conservatory, Boston
Wind Rose for wind (2008) [6.09]; Sound Fields for strings (2007) [8.53]
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Knussen
rec. BBC Radio, 16 December 2008
Mad Regales for six solo voices (2007) [6.53]
BBC Singers
rec. BBC Radio 3, 16 December 2008
On Conversing with Paradise for baritone and ensemble (2009) [11.40]
Leigh Melrose (baritone); Birmingham Contemporary Music Group/Oliver Knussen
rec. 20 June 2009, Snape, Maltings, BBC Radio 3.
CD 2
Retracing I for solo bassoon (2002) [1.32];
Peter Kolkay (bassoon)
Retracing II for solo horn (2009) [2.35];
William Purvis (solo horn)
Retracing III for solo trumpet (2009) [1.57]
Jon Nelson (trumpet)
Due Duetti (2009) [8.42]
Rolf Schulte (violin); Fred Sherry (cello)
rec. 22 September 2009, Academy of Arts and Letters, New York
Figment III for solo contrabass (2007) [3.10]
Donald Palma (contrabass)
rec. 15 October 2009, Clinton Studios, New York
Figment IV for solo viola (2007) [3.06]
Hsin-Yun Huang (viola)
rec. 22 September 2009, American Academy of Arts, New York
Figment V for solo marimba (2009) [1.57]
Simon Boyar (marimba)
rec. 5 September 2009, Queens College, New York
La Musique for solo soprano (2007) [2.28]
Lucy Shelton (soprano)
rec. 4 October 2009, Lefrak Concert Hall, Queens College, New York
Clarinet Quintet (2007) [13.57]
Juilliard Quartet; Charles Neidich (clarinet)
rec. 19 April 2009, Lefrak Concert Hall. Queens College, New York
Poems of Louis Zukofsky (2008) [13.44]
Lucy Shelton (soprano); Charles Neidich (clarinet)
rec. 4 October 2009, Lefrak Concert Hall, Queens College, New York