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 Aitken.
Naxos 8.559614 () (DDD) TT: 64:50

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 public.

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 Morning, 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 some more.

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)