Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei (1993-96). Clarinet Concerto (1996).
Carter, who celebrates his 90th birthday in December, wrote these works in his 80s. Awesome, as youngsters say these days. He is the Energizer Bunny of serious music on a world scale. It may be that another composer, or a few since 1500, wrote works of substantial length and formidable density at his advanced age, but none comes to mind. Carter is iconic, emblematic, honored where'er he walks (beneath an umbrella on the cover of this flimsily packaged disc). Pierre Boulez conducts his music, as he has done since his tenure with the New York Philharmonic (1971-77). So, more recently, does Daniel Barenboim, never one to miss a bandwagon opportunity. Oliver Knussen, himself a composer, has dedicated his middle years to the podium, where he proselytizes on behalf of colleagues more elderly, more acclaimed, but none the less in need of two helping hands.
Carter's music since the middle-1940s, when he commenced to forge a gneissoid, Gnostic style, challenges listeners just to parse it, much less assimilate it. The earliest of his rigorously intellectual works let us come near without attacking us; but as time has gone on, few have yielded any secrets willingly or readily. I haven't cared to sweat out Carter's lucubrations since Symphony of Three Orchestras for the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976 (but then I've never succeeded in reading all of Moncrieff's translation of Marcel Proust's eight volumes of Remembrance, though a new translation is promised next year that sounds, um, promising). Given this admittedly obdurate stance, what of the current compendium?
The Clarinet Concerto exemplifies what Knussen, in a pithy note, calls "a scaffolding of 'giant' polyrhythms -- two different pendulums which start together (not necessarily at the beginning of a piece) and drift further and further apart, triggering a prodigious variety of musical incidents, etc." When these are not pulling apart, the Concerto has moments of benign and blessedly welcome tranquility -- relatively speaking, mind you. But the rest is a construct of arbitrarily-pitched themes and/or motifs that sound like a Hoffnung Festival send-up without the smile. I came to hate it before the music blew itself out at 18' 51".
The Symphony has a Latin co-title ("I am the prize of flowering hope"), which Carter took "from a Latin poem, Bulla, by the 17th century English metaphysical Richard Cranshaw, in which the creative fancy is likened to an airborne bubble reflecting the variety and change of life" (Bayan Northcott's phrase in his fulsome program essay). But of course Carter would choose that kind of op. to cit. The work's three movements, lasting nigh into 46 minutes, were separately commissioned and composed -- for the Chicago, BBC and Cleveland Orchestras -- reputedly as components of a cosmic scheme. They are Partita (another Carterism: "not to evoke the Baroque form but in its Italian connotation of a game" -- so what's wrong with Jeux or, hey, Games?); Adagio tenebroso, and Allegro correvole. I came away feeling battered. Maybe listened to one at a time...but I won't be climbing back into that ring.
Nor am I equipped to speak of either performance beyond saying that both fairly breathe authority and commitment -- Knussen would not have it otherwise -- and have been resoundingly engineered by Tryggvi Tryggvason, who with Knussen co-produced the Concerto in Henry Wood Hall, London. Knussen and Colin Matthews produced the Symphony in Maida Vale Studio 1. The disc is D.G.G.'s latest in a motley series, so far, called 20/21: André Previn's opera A Streetcar Named Desire cheek-by-jowl with Olivier Messiaen's Saint François d'Assise, Ned Rorem and Philip Glass with Arvo Pärt, Toru Takemitsu with Boulez and Luciano Berio, and now Carter with Maurizio Kagel.
Libraries and doctoral candidates, rejoice.
R.D. (Aug. 2001)