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.
Bridge 9184 (DDD) TT: 61:22

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 music. 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 other instruments. 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
So does
your love
bathe every
Object of the world --

The tutti sections represent the rain -- spattering, sputtering, even delicate. The chamber sections generally come across as more meditative, with occasional 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 poetic.

With the ASKO Concerto, we get a super-chamber work written for the Dutch new-music 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 interesting, 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)