Even a casual acquaintance with the work of Elliott Carter, who will be 103 this December, reveals versatility as one of his greatest characteristics. The series from Bridge of Carter's works has served lovers of contemporary music well for decades. Eight Compositions is no exception. It contains works from 1948 (the Sonata) to 1993 (Gra). Although this is a period of 45 years – half Carter's composing life – this excellent CD provides invaluable insights, firstly into Carter's compositional priorities and strengths; and secondly into the musicians and their relationships with the composer, his sense of innovation and continuity. So we see familiar performers on this CD, and it's the better for it … Neidich, Sherry, Schulte, Starobin, Wuorinen and so on. They're best placed to present music of lasting beauty and appeal. And so they do. Don't hesitate to add this to your collection. Carter's musicality originates – among other areas – in the very sounds, mechanics and acoustics of the instruments for which he chooses to write. So the players had better be expert and unafraid, accomplished and willing to experiment with Carter as he explores such sounds. Here they are.
Gra, the shortest work on this generous CD, sets the scene: Charles Neidich's almost magical clarinet. The word means "play" in Polish (the piece was written for Lutoslawski's 80th birthday) and is indeed whimsical (ghiribizzoso is the score's heading) and exposes the instrument's sonic potential as well as its comic strengths. Yet it's not a frivolous piece – as Naidich's committed and highly accomplished (supremely confident) playing demonstrates. In a not dissimilar way, Enchanted Preludes also from the late 1980s, early 90's, is lighthearted yet conceals weight. Interestingly, the title comes from a poem by Wallace Stevens, which also counterposes the elfin with the elfin effect. Not a lightweight work, Carter nevertheless shows us how he can advance lightness of touch – as do Harvey Sollberger, flute, and Fred Sherry, cello.
Equally exciting and convincing as a partnership, yet one which points up the duality of violin and piano, not in this case their congruence, are Martin Goldray, piano, and Rolf Schulte, violin, in the longest work on the CD, the earlier (1974) Duo. It's a frenetic work, yet totally directed, completely contained for all its exuberance and uncompromising exposure of each instrument's sounds. Carter amazingly invites us to consider in their very contrasts what they have in common. At the original performance the two instruments were placed 15 feet apart. For all that, the two soloists here use their instruments so differently, play contrasting material and proceed at times almost independently of each other, they are still a … Duo. A highly satisfying performance.
Scrivo in Vento pushes the ideas of instrumental contrasts and almost fragmented possibilities further still. Within one short piece (just under six minutes) Sollberger's flute seems to become at least four instruments – lyrical, piercing, "lost" and harsh as well as conventionally enchanting/pastoral. Again, Carter has written contrast and opposition in to Scrivo in Vento (from the Petrarch sonnet). But they don't take your attention and appreciation from the "fluteness" of the flute. Sollberger understands this and exposes its every aspect to perfection. Equally sophisticated in blending the innate qualities of his instrument, the guitar, with what Carter wrote for him (albeit after consultation) David Starobin performs Changes with great deftness and understatement – although the music is quietly spectacular as it explores some of the instrument's sounds, ending in a beautiful series of chords redolent of the change-ringing practice of church bells. Not imitative; purposefully suggestive.
Con Leggerezza Pensosa was written in 1990 to honor Italo Calvino. It's again full of contrast and contrasts. Not only episodically with the sequence of material that they play. But also in the ways in which Neidich, Schulte and Sherry interact with one another and with the implied and actual differences with which – "if asked", so to speak (!) – they would take up one another's themes.
The Riconoscenza per Goffredo Petrassi is from 1984 and honors the Italian composer and friend of Carter's Again, there is conscious but not self-conscious contrast – between three modes of violin playing (soft and sweet lyricism, scratchy antagonism, tranquil suspension). Schulte's solo violin playing is concentrated, communicative and light of touch. One of his most effective performances on this CD.
At the end of the CD comes the Sonata for Cello and Piano from 1948; lasting almost 20 minutes, Sherry again plays with composer and theorist Charles Wuorinen in its four movements. It's an interesting way to end this CD, for the Sonata represented something of a turning point in Carter's long career. It contains some of the innovative techniques with which Carter later became so closely identified – polyrhythms and almost "competing" speeds. Certainly contrasting ones. But this is nothing trite or mechanical for the sake of mechanism. It's less "adventurous" in itself than many later compositions by Carter. But for its time and form the Sonata successfully pursues and examines the same implicit emphasis on the relationship between instruments as extensions of those who play them by stark yet euphonious emphasis on each instrument's characteristics when they're revealed in tandem with those of another.
Carter: Eight Compositions, then, could be seen as a showcase for instrumentalists, for their instruments. It's neither. If anything it's a restrained, thoughtful and extremely well-performed examination of… The Instrument. Those playing are all experts, of course, on their own instruments and with contemporary music in general and Carter's in particular. The acoustic of these performances is excellent, the booklet that comes with Bridge's CD informative and useful. All in all one not to miss.
Copyright © 2011, Mark Sealey.