CARTER: Sonata for Cello and Piano. Figment Nos. 1 & 2. Enchanted
Preludes. Scrivo in Vento. Gra. Con leggerezza pensosa. Fragments Nos.
1 & 2. Elegy.
Johannes Martens Ensemble.
2L 2L54SACD (DDD) TT: 64:29.
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A quick tour of Carter's chamber music, relatively early to late. In December,
Elliott Carter will reach his hundredth birthday. As far as I know, he
still composes. He began as a pupil of Nadia Boulanger and Walter Piston
and wrote music typical of the American neoclassicism of the academic northeast:
Harold Shapero, Irving Fine, David Diamond, and Piston himself. In the
late Forties, he began to change. As he put it, his model shifted from
Bach to Beethoven. Probably more important was his contact with Charles
Ives, dating from the Twenties, which also may have strengthened his attraction
The cello sonata (1948) is one of the first compositions to show that shift,
although there's still plenty of neoclassicism in it. I consider it one
of his greatest works, big and visionary, and where the technical innovations
don't overwhelm the emotional content. The large technical concerns of
it have occupied Carter to this day. In Carter's neo-classical work, the
separate lines fit together in a most satisfying way, like the click on
the lid of a well-made box, to paraphrase Yeats. In the cello sonata and
in his subsequent, Carter accentuates the independence of the lines. The
first movement begins with the piano ticking along steadily, while the
cello sings long, insinuating lines which never correspond to the piano's
ticks. The clock beats, and life goes on to its own rhythm. At the end,
the instruments switch roles, and the movement finishes with a lone note
from the cello. This leads to a scherzo, jazzy and playful, which in turn
leads to the slow movement, where Carter comes up with his famous "metrical
modulation." The technical detail matters less than the emotional
journey. In fact, I doubt most listeners would catch the points where this
occurs, at least without a score. The movement sings majestically, its
notes somewhat severely separated into long and very short. The very short
notes, reversing custom, represent an increase of tension, rather than
its release -- like the tiny clicks you feel as you wind up a watch. Again,
the movement ends on a lone note of the cello. The finale, a rather Stravinskian
allegro (with more metrical modulations), really moves, recalling earlier
ideas along the way. Toward the end, you get a return of the opening ticking-vs.-free-flow
of the first movement, and again the movement winds down to the cello all
by itself. I've known and loved this work for forty years, but it remains
a bit of a mystery to me -- not musically, but of the psychological neighborhood
it inhabits, something like the Debussy in that regard. I can't think of
another American cello sonata so mature in its emotional thinking as this
one. It impresses me as having been written by a real Mensch.
Figment for cello alone nevertheless exhibits Carter's fondness for conversation
as a metaphor of musical discourse. In this case, the cello engages in
dialogue with itself, as long singing lines get interrupted with short
blasts. Figment No. 2, subtitled "Remembering Mr. Ives" and also
for solo cello, I like better. It has momentary quotes from Ives's Concord
Sonata and Hallowe'en, but even better it evokes the world of Ives -- its
hymns and its bubbling energy -- through relatively simple and very touching
I've got nothing against the Enchanted Preludes for cello and flute, Scrivo
in Vento ("written on the wind") for solo flute, or Gra ("game")
for solo clarinet (dedicated to Lutoslawski), but they really are the same
kind of piece and probably shouldn't have all been programmed on the same
CD. Nevertheless, Scrivo in Vento stands out for me for its qualities of
serenity and the tightness of its construction.
Con Leggerezza Pensosa: Ommagio a Italo Calvino ("with the lightness
of thoughtfulness: homage to Italo Calvino") for clarinet, violin,
and cello shows Carter's characteristic separation of parts, but it all
seems to hang together nevertheless. Perhaps despite Carter's intent, it
also strikes me as incredibly sad, although I can't tell you why.
The two Fragments for string quartet live up to their title, in that they
seem to be sketches for something larger. The musicians play them without
a break. The first relentlessly stresses the strings in their high register.
The second has lines approaching each other in pitch, separating, and coming
together again. For me, neither is all that compelling.
The Elegy for cello and piano comes from 1946. Carter arranged it for strings
in 1952, the version heard here -- an elegant, gorgeous bit of neoclassicism.
It should come as no surprise that this is a Norwegian production or that
all the performers reside in Norway. Europe plays Carter's music far more
often than the United States does. Indeed, a good portion of Carter's American
performances come from the academy. However, two staunch American Carterites,
Charles Rosen and Fred Sherry, get partial credit for helping with the
music. Whatever their input, the result is a reading that emphasizes music,
rather than technique. I did not listen to this disc in SACD, but the normal
stereo is fine, if not spectacular. The sonic image is a bit small-scale,
but that doesn't hurt this kind of chamber music, heavily slanted to solo
instruments. My only criticism is that Johannes Martens, the cellist and
the leader of the ensemble, has a lighter tone than Bernard Greenhouse,
the cellist who introduced me to the Carter sonata. On the other hand,
he seems to understand the music better, as well he should after sixty
years. For that matter, as well we should.
S.G.S. (September 2008)