CARTER: Mosaic (2005). Scrivo in Vento (1991). Gra (1993). Enchanted
Preludes (1988). Steep Steps (2001). Figment No. 1 (1994). Riconoscenza
per Goffredo Petrassi (1984). Figment No. 2 (Remembering Mr. Ives) (2001).
Rhapsodic Musings (1999). Dialogues (2004).
Erica Goodman (harp); Max Christie (clarinet); Robert Aitken (flute);
David Hetherington (cello); Virgil Blackwell (bass clarinet); Fujiko
Imajishi (violin); David Swan (piano); New Music Concerts Ensemble/Robert
Naxos 8.559614 () (DDD) TT: 64:50
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Celebrator, celebrity, and celebritee. This CD ("Elliott Carter
100th Anniversary Release") also comes with a free DVD (Naxos 2.110256)
featuring a conversation between Carter and the New Music Concerts Ensemble
(NMC) director, Robert Aitken and live performances of Mosaic and Dialogues with the forces on the CD. Carter turned 100 in December. As far as I
know, he's still writing away. Europe and Canada celebrated his birthday
with lots of concerts, but not his own country, which tells me all I
need to know about the precarious health of the American classical-music
On the other hand, I can't really blame anybody, or rather I have to
blame too many people to make it any fun. In general, we get the music
we deserve. I merely thank God for recordings.
For a contemporary, "hard-nut" composer, Carter's music has
received lots of recordings on various labels, often with high-end performers.
Bridge Records seems in the middle of recording his complete catalogue.
Even Naxos has several releases, so the music is there for those who
want it. On the other hand, the recordings concentrate on stuff since
the Eighties and ignore the considerable achievement that came before.
The earliest piece here comes from 1984.
I have no idea why pieces like the First Symphony, The Harmony of
the Piano Sonata, and Pocahontas have been shoved to the end of the line.
Roger Dettmer has remarked that it's a shame Carter hasn't written a
melody since the Forties. While I don't entirely agree, R. D. has a point.
Carter wrote superb melodies, which his now-typical manner eschews for
dramatic gesture and super-counterpoint. It's a shame he's felt the need
to give them up, apparently cold turkey. I love Carter's music, early
and late, but even I don't want to listen to an entire concert of his
post-Eighties work. It's an exhausting pleasure. The pleasures are not
those of a warm sensual background, but those that exercise the listening
mind. I listened to this disc more or less twenty minutes at a time,
just because I couldn't give the entire program my complete attention
in one go -- too exhausting.
Carter has led a composing life roughly equal to an entire old man. He
has outlived at least two generations of composers. It strikes me as
natural that much of his recent output celebrates and memorializes past
friendships. For example, Mosaic for harp solo and chamber ensemble connects
with the great harpist Carlos Salzedo, a post-Impressionist who championed
the contemporary music of his time and influenced writing for harp in
such composers as Boulez, Berio, and Crumb as well as Carter, who incorporated
his innovations into their very different music. Apart from that, however,
I get a Spanish vibe from the score -- grand, passionate declamation
and inward yearning -- without resort to Spanish song and dance. One
of my favorite Carters.
Scrivo in Vento ("I write on the wind") comes from a Petrarch
sonnet. The poet waits for death as a blessed rest, since he can't have
his love. Carter wrote the little work for flutist Robert Aitken, who
plays it here. With Debussy's Syrinx, it stands as one of the most expressive
pieces for solo flute. It follows, in a general way, the mood of the
poem: serenity, yearning, the occasional pang of regret. By pure coincidence,
Aitken premiered it on Petrarch's birthday.
Gra -- dedicated to Carter's friend, Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski
-- I've never really cared for. Gra means "games," but I'm
not having much fun. Written for solo clarinet, it strikes me as a compendium
of boops and squeaks. Perhaps Carter means this as wit. I just don't
get the joke. I will say that the clarinetist, Max Christie, plays the
bejabbers out of the thing, keeping a beautiful tone throughout, even
during the sections of harmonics. It's the most persuasive reading of
the piece I've heard, and I have to admit that I'm going to have to listen
For flute and cello, Enchanted Preludes has, I think, a misleading title.
It's a single movement, for one thing. Don't expect an Impressionist
reverie. Carter linked the music somewhere in his mind to a Wallace Stevens
translation of a Persian ghazal.
Felicity, ah! Time is the hooded enemy,
The inimical music, the enchantered space
In which the enchanted preludes have their place.
The music doesn't work the same way on me as it does on the composer,
which to me indicates the its ability to reach beyond its inspiration.
I love this work, but my enjoyment derives from something rather abstract
-- the changing relationship between the cello and the flute. The two
instruments pass through an intricate dance, sometimes merging into one
super-instrument in the borderland between flute and cello, sometimes
moving apart and keeping their distinct character.
Steep Steps, for the rarely-encountered solo bass clarinet, for me has
all the wit Gra apparently strives for. The line is mainly arpeggios
and wide leaps (the bass clarinet overblows at the twelfth), and the
idea of that deep, rich sound cavorting about strikes me as comic. Virgil
Blackwell, the dedicatee, keeps his balance in this musical tilt-a-whirl.
The two Figments for solo cello differ in tone. The first is filled with
the grand gesture and dramatic contrasts. The second, "Remembering
Mr. Ives" (as a boy, really, Carter had met Ives), meditates more
and to me evokes much of the Ives imaginary landscape -- hymns, Victorian
parlor ballads, and Transcendental rapture in the presence of nature.
For me, the dedicatee, Thomas Demenga on ECM 472787 (a double set), does
best, but Hetherington does well nevertheless.
With some exceptions, the sound of the solo violin sets my teeth on edge,
so Riconoscenza and Rhapsodic Musings have that strike against them.
I like the solo suites of Bach best (who doesn't?), but even here it
takes a violinist with exceptional tone to put them over for me. "Riconoscenza" means "gratitude." Written
to celebrate Petrassi's 80th birthday, it seems for most of its run merely
well-written, although I admit the ending haunts me -- the violin ready
to go off into "that good night." Rhapsodic Musings is dedicated
to Robert Mann, legendary first violinist of the Juilliard String Quartet
and staunch advocate of "hard" music, on his 80th birthday.
The piece is built largely on Mann's initials, "R. M." (= re
mi = D E), and seconds and sevenths play a large role. Again, Carter
exploits a declamatory/intensely ruminating contrast.
Dialogues, a mini-concerto of sorts for piano and chamber ensemble, instead
of following the traditional soloist-orchestra rhetorical strategies,
embodies Carter's favorite metaphor of music as conversation. The soloist
engages in dialogue with single ensemble instruments, the mass interrupts
him, and so on. Carter puts on quite a contrapuntal display while he
preserves dramatic values. The orchestration amazes you with its precise
elegance. I'm particularly fond of a martial section for brass and piano.
Pianist David Swan plays with, at times, gossamer delicacy. I slightly
prefer him to Nicholas Hodges on Bridge, although Oliver Knussen gives
a tighter reading than Aitken.
I can't praise these performances highly enough, even though I may prefer
others in some cases. In Mosaic and Dialogues, Aitken tends to give the
players interpretive room, which seems to me thoroughly in concert with
Carter's scores and, given the caliber of performers, thoroughly satisfying.
Everybody plays with intelligence and commitment, and the recorded sound
is clear and "natural." The DVD live performances of Mosaic and Dialogue is a bit looser, without descending into the scrappy. I
won't comment on the sound, since I heard it through my TV speakers.
As for the Aitken-Carter interview, Carter, as far as I'm concerned,
never has been a good interview. He seems unwilling to give much away
and at times demonstrates an almost-moralistic horror of telling anybody
what he aimed for or had in mind in a particular piece beyond the surface
technicalities that most people can get. Still, it's great to see him
up and about in Toronto, 98 at the time and looking like Puck grown old.
S.G.S. (March 2009)