CARTER: Holiday Overture (1944 rev. 1961). Symphony No. 1 (1942 rev, 1954). Piano Concerto (1964-65).
Mark Wait, pianist; Nashville Symphony Orch/Kenneth Schermerhorn, cond.
NAXOS 8.559151 (B) (DDD) TT: 62:43

Whether or not this release heralds a Carter series on Naxos, it includes the first digital recordings of two early works: the three-movement Symphony No. 1 (1942; rev. 1954), and Holiday Overture (1944; rev. 1961). Both reflect early training. The Symphony is basically a diatonic conflation of Aaron Copland and Stravinsky, with a witty finale unlike anything else I know by Carter, whose retreat into intellectual arcana began in the 1950s and peaked in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Holiday keeps echoing Walter Piston, one of quite many composers Carter studied with, and at just under 10 minutes sounds overlong for its subject matter. Already, it seems, he was backing away from conventional forms into a musical continuum that was his trademark for almost a third – in fact closer to half – of his 95 years (96 in December).

Among the influences on this arcana were the music of Ives (for whom he worked as an after- hours student clerk, and whom Carter later accused of “tarting-up” earlier works with dissonances to make them sound avant-garde), and the violent high-spirits of Edgard Varèse. Years later Carter and Stravinsky had a mutual admiration society, especially when Carter completed what was the high-water mark of his fecund middle-years, the Double Concerto for harpsichord, piano and two chamber orchestras (1959-61). He called the ‘60s his “concerto period” – another for Orchestra in 1969 that Bernstein commissioned for the New York Philharmonic (and recorded), and the Piano Concerto of 1964-65. A violin concerto was discussed but didn’t come about until a second “concerto period” in the later decades of his life, specifically 1990, preceded by an oboe concerto in 1986-7, followed by a cello concerto in 2000, and two concertos for three instruments, respectively “Asko” and “Boston.”

Of all these, the hairiest is his Piano Concerto, whose superimposition of densities and rhythmic complexities make even repeated listenings a bewilderment at best, and an ordeal more often than not. Its two movements feature the kind of textures in which only the soloist might know if he struck a wrong note or several. There have been two previous versions by Ursula Oppens with conductor Michael Gielen since the pioneering RCA on LP only by Jacob Lateiner, Erich Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony. The older (1984)Oppens recording is from two concert performances with the Cincinnati Symphony (on New Worlds Records), and a later one from 1999 on Arte Nova with the SWR Orchestra (available only as an import from Germany). Mark Wait, on Naxos’ new release, is “Dean and Professor of Music at the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University” in Nashville, and seems (I can only say without score in hand) to have the work under his fingers, as befits an artist who has played Carter’s Double Concerto as well as Stravinsky in Robert Craft’s ongoing cycle on Music Masters. Conductor Kenneth Schermerhorn and the Nashville Symphony are plainly more at home in the overture and symphony, but make a befitting density of sound in a suitably ambient hall at the Blair School.

For more details on and about the Concerto, let me suggest essays on if the music piques your curiosity, or leaves you in limbo expressively once you’ve heard it. Go with God into the deep dark forest.

R.D. (April 2004)