CARTER: Dialogues (2003). Boston Concerto (2002). Cello Concerto (2001).
ASKO Concerto (2000).
Nicolas Hodges (piano); Fred Sherry (cello); London
Sinfonietta; BBC Symphony Orchestra;Asko Ensemble/Oliver Knussen.
9184 (DDD) TT: 61:22
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Performances that give you a shot. Many friends of mine wonder why I
like contemporary music. I usually reply that I don't like contemporary
I don't like any music in general, but specific works. However, I do seem
to listen - and for fun - to more contemporary scores than most. In some
cases, my wife makes me put on earphones. Ives's plaintive question - "Are
my ears on wrong?" - echoes in me from time to time, but I always
come around to the same answer: I like what I like and don't see why I
shouldn't spend my free time enjoying myself.
To me, Elliott Carter is a major composer, but I can't pretend that I understand
or even admire everything he writes. He begins as one of our finest neo-classicists,
very close to Piston (he studied with the composer and with Nadia Boulanger),
about whom he wrote a penetrating article. After World War II, he began
to flex his muscles and break out of what he apparently considered a neoclassical
strait-jacket toward something new, with works like the cello and piano
sonatas. Then came his metrical experiments and the influence of Charles
Ives. Off-hand, I can't think of two more dissimilar artists than Carter
and Ives. Ives is a sprawling Romantic, whose Whitmanic desire to include
everything sometimes makes for turgid going. Carter's imaginative ear is
one of the most fastidious around, and the neoclassic ideal of clarity
doesn't stray far from his work. Nevertheless, apparently Ives's conception
of simultaneity and his desire to find new modes of expression took root
in Carter's musical thinking.
Carter and I began to part company in the mid-Sixties, but even in his
late scores I find a lot that gets my heart skipping. I admit I also find
a lot that makes no rhetorical sense to me at all, however tightly written.
Examination of scores might help, as long as it comes with hard listening,
but I'm a tired old man. Carter certainly doesn't make things easy. For
some reason, he hates attempts to "explain" his work and seems
to regard them as patronizing or condescending, even an insult to his artistic
integrity. So patronize me a little. I'll take any help I can get. And
the thing is, the works themselves speak to his aesthetic honesty, so I
have no idea why his conscience is so tender.
Make no mistake, Carter does demand a lot from a listener, more than many
are prepared to give. I keep at him for several reasons. The performers
eager to perform him are some of the smartest and best around and, I confess,
my intellectual pride would otherwise suffer if I didn't make the effort.
After all, much of Carter's "difficult" music is by now nearly
half a century old. It seems to me that if I'm really interested in music
as an art, I should at least be interested in the art of my own time. In
short, I have a stake in living art. If I shut off the present, I risk
losing the future as well. I could find myself in essentially a meat locker,
where works are hung like sides of beef. This doesn't mean the past has
nothing to tell me or that the continual reinterpretation of the past has
no value. Yet it strikes me as rather odd that I should listen only to
minds that have no idea of me or my circumstances.
When I don't "get" a Carter piece, precisely what eludes me interests
me. I can almost always tell the blueprint of the piece -- the gestures
and groups of notes that bind the work -- just by listening. I'm sure if
I had a score, more complicated relationships along this line would reveal
themselves. But music isn't just patterns (well, sometimes it is, but that's
exactly the music that doesn't last). Music expresses something within
us -- perhaps what Sessions called the "inner motion" of our
thinking, the current that travels along brain's pathways and builds new
bridges between the new "object," new ideas occasioned by the
object, and previous items in our idea inventory. Music should make rhetorical
sense - a drama without plot, a meditation without words. I often don't
get why Carter thinks the music expressive, although obviously he does.
I miss the music's rhetorical coherence. Much of Brahms's music, incidentally,
used to affect me the same way.
This CD is volume seven in Bridge Records series of Carter. The company
has taken him up -- early, middle, and late -- as Columbia once took up
Stravinsky and Copland and Decca beat the drum for Britten. The Carter
series, along with the Pierian label's recordings of Welte-Mignon recordings,
could very well prove to be one of the most important today.
Dialogues, the most recent piece on the program (I'm happy to report),
is my favorite. Carter has always had a rather dramatic sensibility. Instruments
become like characters in a play. The metaphor of conversation has proved
especially fruitful to the composer, particularly in the late quartets.
The title, Dialogues, sort of gives the game away. In some ways, I'd describe
it as a Konzertstück for piano and chamber ensemble. Instead of sonata-allegro
argument or concerto grosso concertino and ripieno contrast,
we have the rhythms of conversation and debate between the piano and the
Like all of Carter, the basic kit of gestures and "themes" is
rather small, so the piece comes off as amazingly tight. There are many
pleasures along the way, almost none of them predictable. Carter, like
Stravinsky, possesses an idiosyncratic and amazingly precise sonic imagination.
My favorite moments in the score include a series of chords, alternating
between the piano and the ensemble, which seem to melt into one another,
and a marvelous militant section for brass and piano, somewhere near the
end. The "conversation" is elegant and occasionally turns both
argumentative and dreamy before it winds down, with the solo piano having
the last word "before bed."
The Boston Concerto, dedicated to the composer's wife (she died shortly
after the work's premiere), is in effect a concerto for orchestra. The
work -- in thirteen brief sections -- alternates orchestral tuttis with
passages featuring smaller ensembles. The piece requires virtuosity from
the players, but it's not especially showy. Carter prefaces the work with
a quote from William Carlos Williams:
As the rain falls
Object of the world --
The tutti sections represent the rain -- spattering, sputtering,
even delicate. The chamber sections generally come across as more meditative,
Tourette's outbursts from the rest of the orchestra. Bayan Northcott's excellent
liner notes point out that the score's emotional weight doesn't come from the tuttis.
Again, one hears beautiful sonorities, but it's not sound for sound's sake. Obviously,
the dedication and trouble Carter takes to put in the epigraph
point to a very personal work. There is an intimacy to it, both in the small
ensembles and in the deliberate thinning out of the full ensemble. But outside
of that, the "psychology" of the score utterly foxes me. I'm getting
the surface only. Most of it sounds to me desperate and angry, certainly not
what I'd expect from the Williams quote. Perhaps I rely too much on Williams
and not enough on Carter.
On the other hand, I just don't understand the cello concerto at all. In seven
continuous brief movements, it seems to me a relentless, cheerless work, with
the cello playing almost all the time. It's an almost-Romantic conception of
soloist as hero. However, this, of course, cuts down on the dynamic range of
the orchestral mass, and despite Carter's characteristic touch at coming up with
brilliant new sounds, it does seem less a composition and more a compendium of
Carter's shtick -- the scorrevole, the stinging interjections,
etc. -- almost a self-parody. I except the two slow movements, both beautifully
With the ASKO Concerto, we get a super-chamber work written for the
group. The basic plan resembles that of the Boston Concerto, in that tuttis frame
and link sections that showcase instrumental combos: two trios, two duets, a
quintet, and a solo. The wrinkle here is that the tutti sections get
smaller and smaller as the piece progresses. The combos, as usual, are fairly
just from the standpoint of scoring: horn-viola-oboe, clarinet-double bass, bass
clarinet-trombone-cello, trumpet-violin, piccolo-xylophone-celesta-harp-violin,
and solo bassoon. Again, the idea box is compact, and the piece's interest (I'm
not sure I'd call it fun, although Northcott clearly disagrees with me) lies
in the variations Carter comes up with, rhythmic, expressive, and timbral. Much
of the piece consists of Carter's polymetric textures -- threes against fours
and fives, for example. However, I should point out that anybody who can notate
could create these things. The trick is to make them sound like expressive music,
which Carter pulls off.
If the composer hasn't sent a nice fruit basket to each and every one of the
players, he should. The performers -- suave, elegant, and masterful, recorded
in superb sound -- play the music like they love it. This is a far cry from the
hang-on-by-the-fingernails stuff Carter's music used to receive, even from top-name
ensembles. Knussen, a fine composer himself as well as a persuasive champion
of "hard" contemporary music, gets readings that, as the SftBE notes,
give the listener a shot at "entering the rose," so to speak. Knussen
clearly wants to make forbidding music as inclusive as possible and you to love
the music as much as he does. Fred Sherry does as well as he can with what I
consider an ungrateful part, and Nicolas Hodges just blazes away in the Dialogues.
If you ever wanted to give late Carter a try, this might well be your best chance.
S.G.S. (February 2006)