The Bridge label has done sterling work in bringing us recordings of the work of Elliott Carter, who died in 2012 at the age of 104. This latest in the series – Volume 9 – is a pleasing compilation of music from his early and later years. It offsets the iconic Piano Concerto from 1964/65 against smaller-scale works of great beauty. Whether unconsciously or by design, this compilation illustrates nicely the musical development of one of music's most extraordinarily long and creative careers. The CD is just over an hour long, the Piano Concerto being the longest work thereon – at nearly 25 minutes.
It's the recording made in 2001 by Charles Rosen with the Basel Sinfonietta under Joel Smirnoff. Rosen was a persuasive and eloquent advocate for Carter's work and the Piano Concerto remains one of the composer's most "aggressive" works. Written in Berlin at a time when conflict was in the air (the era of the Berlin Wall), Carter places the soloist in unequivocal opposition to the orchestra. The relationship is a complex one, though: Carter imagined the piano as a child, almost, taught by its parents yet quickly rejecting everything they said as wrong. The soloist and orchestra seem to lead entirely different lives.
Yet it's clear that they need each other. That they define their positions one against the other. The soloist is to be placed physically apart from the orchestra. S/he has a confidence and an almost dreamlike absorption in what they intend to do regardless of what's happening around them. Yet the soloist is not entirely on their own. Indeed, members of the group of seven "intermediate" players whose role is to respond both to orchestra and soloist are actually called "mediators". It's an exciting and memorable piece, typical of Carter's unassuming inventiveness from the middle of his life. The playing is as decisive and yet sensitive as it needs to be. Rosen seems to have a touch less attachment to the nuances which we know Carter required than does Ursula Oppens (Arte Nova 27773). The Concerto is an exciting and exhilarating work and one which should be in the collection of anyone seriously interested in modern music. Rosen's performance is an excellent one that ought to attract newcomers to Carter as well as delighting those familiar with other of his works, but not yet this key piece.
Before the Piano Concerto come the three songs, Tell Me Where is Fancy Bred, Voyage and Warble for Lilac Time from 1938 (the first) and 1943 (the second and third – both orchestrated in 1979). It's the soprano and guitar version we hear of the first with a telling recording from 1976 by Rosalind Rees and David Starobin; a striking balance between the Elizabethan text and music centered firmly in the twentieth century. And the orchestral versions with soprano Tony Arnold and the Colorado College Festival Orchestra under Scott Yoo from a much more recent recording, in 2007. These are equally idiomatic and convey the subtlety and sensitivity that must be necessary to make the most of words that were unlikely ever to be set to music like Carter's. Significantly, Carter was on the edge of a major change in his musical priorities when writing the last two of these songs. There's no potentially corresponding uncertainty or questioning from either of these two sets of performers.
Two Thoughts about the piano are recent works – from 40 years after the Piano Concerto. They're typically brief and display Carter's concentration and economy. As in the Tri-Tribute, which follows, Steven Beck plays with real attack and confidence. Yet he never loses the subtlety and almost reticent and demur grace of the works. They're also packed with variety, surprises indeed. Thoughts - 1 (Intermittences) [tr.6] is the more mercurial. In fact it examines the idea of difference. Of the juxtaposition of alternative viewpoints, opinions, contrasts. Beck conveys this well and does not get sidetracked by imposing an external motive or reason for the contrasts. It's the music that provides the description; no explanation is needed. Thoughts - 2 (Catènaires) [tr.7] is much more frenetic. It's shorter. But Beck's superb technique gives the impression that he could scurry and twist along for hours. The piece lacks chords altogether so the idea of a curve, a continuous string of notes is paramount. That horizontal momentum is just what Back emphasizes. The three-section Tri-Tribute from just a little later in the same period (2007-8) is even shorter… "Sistribute" lasts barely a minute, "Fratribute" just over two and a half and "Matribute" two. Again, it's a distillation without abbreviation or curtailment that is needed. At he same time, Beck does not attempt to make impact by drawing attention to the focus, the concentration. The music breathes by itself.
The same can be said for what is effectively Carter's second Wind Quintet (his first was written in 1948). Completed on his 101st birthday in 2009, its title indicated the number of instruments (flautist doubles piccolo, oboe cor anglais, clarinet the E-flat instrument and bassoon doubles contrabassoon) played by the five performers – in this case the Slowind Wind Quintet. It too is brief – under eight minutes. But it's a nice mixture of angularity and lyricism. There's also a span of tessiture, textures in any one passage and – because Nine by Five is relatively short – across the work, which easily remains in our memory at any one listening. Again, the players emphasize not these technicalities in projecting the sounds. But the progress of the music itself. Color is important. So are the contrasts between Hauptstimme and Nebenstimmen. Here a sense of ensemble, of course, is just as important as individual virtuosity. This performance has both and allows the music to float, almost, to the fore.
The various acoustics and engineering (some of these are ADD recordings, of course) each enhance the performances in typical Bridge fashion: the music is rightly more important than any sense of "occasion". Yet each of these performances is tense and heightened – in the best sense of the words. Malcolm MacDonald's notes in the accompanying booklet are trenchant, informative and usefully descriptive of the seven works on the CD. If you've been collecting the Bridge Carter series, you won't want to miss this volume – even though all the compositions except Tri-Tribute and Nine by Five are otherwise available in creditable recordings. But this is a compelling collection of important music excellently played.
Copyright © 2013, Mark Sealey