Elliott CARTER (1908-2012)
Variations for Orchestra (1954-5, revised 1966) [23:07]
Gunther SCHULLER (1925-2015)
for orchestra (1960) [20:29]
Milton BABBITT (1916-2011)
for string orchestra and synthesized tape (1968) [10:06]
John CAGE (1912-1992)
Atlas eclipticalis
(1961) [14:19]
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/James Levine
rec. July 1990, Orchestra Hall, Chicago

In his operatic work James Levine has been best known for his work with the main nineteenth century repertoire. In concert he has been an enthusiastic champion of new music, indeed to such an extent that the Boston Symphony Orchestra asked him to programme fewer new works as they were finding them so demanding. This disc dates from before that period, but even so he had been performing three of these works for years before setting them down on record.

Actually it is the work which was relatively new to him which comes off best. Carter’s Variations for orchestra was his breakthrough orchestral work, and with the Double Concerto, Piano Concerto and Concerto for Orchestra, consolidated his reputation in the 1960s. After a brief introduction the theme appears on lower strings and is followed by nine variations and a finale. David Schiff’s book on the composer provides a detailed analysis, but the listener can hear the theme being transformed and manipulated. Two of the most striking variations are the second and the fourth: in the fourth the speed halves every four bars and in the sixth it triples every six bars. There is a good deal of variety of texture and volume and the whole work is no more difficult to listen to than Brahms’ St Anthony Variations and a good deal easier than Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra, against which Carter was consciously reacting. There is even a hint of Aaron Copland. The orchestra know the work well, having been introduced to it by Georg Solti some years before, and they deliver a confident performance.

Gunther Schuller was almost too versatile for his own good. As well as composing he was a horn player, a conductor and, in particular, a jazz musician who had a particular interest in incorporating jazz techniques into classical works in an idiom he called 'Third Stream'. Spectra, however, does not feature jazz techniques; rather, it is a work characteristic of the 1960s avant-garde. Although it makes quite interesting noises I find it bombastic and empty. I do not hear the kind of controlling mind behind it as I do with Carter. Schuller’s one symphony has been highly praised so perhaps one should look out for that.

Milton Babbitt has had a bad press. In 1958 he wrote an article to which he gave the title ‘The composer as specialist’. However, when published it was re-titled ‘Who cares if you listen?’ and ever since his reputation has been of an ivory tower composer uninterested in the public, which was untrue and unfair. He was, however, a committed serial composer and he also became interested in the possibilities of using a synthesizer to achieve precise rhythms beyond the capacities of human performers. Correspondences was his first mature orchestral work and it uses these techniques. The problem for the listener is that serial methods of organisation are inaudible so one has to fall back on the sounds themselves. In this work they are the splintered and constantly varied motifs in wide intervals in a texture which derives from Webern, who was much admired in the 1960s. Now I find this idiom quite attractive, but with nothing to hold on to it soon palls, so though this work, though quite short, seems too long.

John Cage is a figure who seems to me to be on the fringe of music, as he moved away from traditional composed music which specifies pitches, durations, rhythms and often timbre and dynamics as well towards what seems to me to be virtually a different art form altogether. This work consists of a set of instrumental parts “to be played in whole or part in any ensemble, chamber or orchestra, with or without Winter Music”. (Winter Music is a work for one to twenty pianists; it is not included here.) The parts themselves are derived from an astronomical atlas – hence the title – using chance techniques, with which Cage became increasingly involved. Consequently no two performances will be much like each other and one can hardly talk of interpretation. The result seems to me to amount to much less than the trouble taken to explain it: twitterings interspersed with silences, though no doubt I am missing the point.

So we have one standout masterpiece and three works which are more documents of their time. Despite my reservations about the other works Levine’s enterprise deserves applause and support. It is always good when a mainstream conductor takes a new work and shows what can be done with it. DG did well by the recording which has a natural concert hall acoustic and not the kind of close and airless one so often given to new music in the past. There are good notes in the booklet. There are several other performances of the Carter, including another one by Levine, but the main competition comes from Michael Gielen in a rather older all-Carter disc, which is tight and efficient but rather less eloquent than Levine. These are the only recordings of the Schuller and Babbitt. There are also several recordings of the Cage, which presumably differ among themselves quite considerably. This disc is worth having for the Carter alone.

Stephen Barber

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