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DVD Review

Elliott Carter

Mode DVD 128

Quintets and Voices

  • Fragment II for String Quartet (1999) 1
  • Quintet for Piano & Strings (1997) 2
  • Syringa for Soprano, Bass & Ensemble (1978) 3
  • Tempo e Tempi for Soprano, Oboe, Clarinet, Violin & Cello (1998) 4
  • Quintet for Piano & Winds (1991) 5
  • Retrouvailles for Piano Solo (2000) 6
3,4 Lucy Shelton, soprano
3 Andre Solomon-Glover, baritone
2,5,6 Ursula Oppens, piano
5 Charles Neidich, clarinet
5 Steve Taylor, oboe
5 William Purvis, French horn
5 Frank Morelli, bassoon
1,2 Arditti Quartet
3 Ensemble Sospeso/Jeffrey Milarsky
4 Ensemble Sospeso/Stefan Asbury
Mode 128 DVD Region 0 LPCM Stereo 24-bit/96khz + 40m Video Interview Fullscreen
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Would that there were more discs like this. It represents effectively a concentrated portrait in high definition sound and video (on the DVD) of recent works by Elliott Carter, who will be 103 in December. Bearing the title Quintets and Voices this excellent offering from new music specialists, Mode, contains half a dozen major works by Carter – all written in the 1990s with the exception of Syringa (1978). They are played superbly by their respective performers, several of whom also gave their premières. Mode's Brian Brandt explains in the liner notes that the idea for the disc came from Irvine Arditti as a result of the reception accorded to Carter's piano quintet. It's a choice collection of the composer's work. The quintet is unavailable elsewhere and both Syringa and the vocal works have only one or two other recordings. The DVD (with the extra material) is considered here. But there is also a CD-only version, also on MODE 128. Since the DVD can be found for only 50% more than the CD and contains material of such significance, it's surely worth the extra.

Fragment II for string quartet dates from 1999 and was written for the Ardittis; it uses contrasts and a kind of dialog emphasizing the dualities, in fact, as much as the differences between song and sudden bursts of energy. It's hard to imagine a more persuasive and suave performance than that given here by the Ardittis. Retrouvailles is for piano solo. It was written in 2000 for Boulez's 75th birthday and contains a motto using letters from his name. It lasts less than two minutes and is expertly played by Oppens.

The Quintet for Piano and Strings was written in 1997 as one extended movement though with sections that divide the music in time; and interplay of dissimilar musical elements… especially between piano, and strings. As with so many of Carter's other works, it's against this strongly structured sense of sequence and development that harmonies operate. The performers, though, appreciate that Carter is in no way attempting to disorientate us or provoke shock by the mere presence of sound. Similarly, the Quintet for Piano and Winds of 1991 explores the drama of how instruments from the different families (piano, horn and reed) work with, within and against one another. It's played out chiefly through again energetically expressed tempi and harmonics that support and illuminate such dramas. The performances are compelling, precise and full of import and weight.

The two vocal pieces are Syringa for soprano, bass and ensemble, which sets John Ashbery's treatment of the Orpheus myth. Curiously, although the interview on the DVD throws doubt on the etymology of syringa, the piece is yet another treatment of the ground-breaking (literally: the flower is also known as saxifrage, which breaks through rocks) and the emergent power of sound. A living organism the result of shards. Tempo e Tempi for soprano, oboe, clarinet, violin and cello (1998) is almost as long, at over a quarter of an hour. It also is a form of quintet – for soprano, violin, cello, oboe and clarinet. The poet is Montale and the aura again one of flow; yet flow in opposition, almost, to tiny fragments of sound. Ensemble Sospeso performs with true and striking adroitness in each case.

There is a long (40 minute) filmed conversation on the DVD that makes as compelling watching as the musical performances make compelling listening. Dating from 2000, Carter, Irvine Arditti, Ursula Oppens with Joshua Cody explore the experience of listening to and performing new music: the excitement of hearing contemporary music for the first time; and growing with it especially when the composer is able to provide input, as Carter often does – and did in these cases; the relationship between what a living composer expects (and demands) and how multiple performers develop multiple interpretations; and how this feeds into what composers then produce. The three discuss how the String Quintet was conceived as an example of Carter's compositional process: how fragments combine, the inspiration, the privilege of being a work's first performer.

Film maker Tim Chu has captured splendidly the relaxed intimacy of Cater, Oppens and Arditti as they reminisce (though not self-indulgently: we're genuinely interested in what they remember). And as they dissect the essence of Carter's music… the relative roles of the instruments and instrumental combinations in particular. Particularly valuable are the insights that Oppens and Arditti offer into the multitude of ways in which Carter provides as many means for instrumental expression as he does – without relying unduly on Extended Techniques; indeed at one point Carter describes himself as a deconstructed classicist whose music should "flow like the air." We hear the terms "float", "flow" and other expressions of continuity often. That these are so aptly used to describe the essence of Carter's music is a tonic. They also describe this conversation.

Carter's charisma (not to mention his modesty) is always a compelling and engaging aspect of watching (and listening to) him talk not only about his music but about the cultural context (of Syringa, for instance). The body language and pace of the conversation of Oppens and Arditti as they discuss the works on the disc are infectious. Pauses and smiles, questions, ribbing, allusions, gentle "throw-away" lines; and also intense, focused description. Above all, pointed exchanges always illuminating the music. The informality of this discussion should not disguise the value it has in expanding our understanding of this area of contemporary music in general, and Carter's in particular. Almost worth the modest price of this DVD alone.

Dutch film maker, Frank Scheffer's, film of the Arditti Quartet with Ursula Oppens playing Carter's Quintet for Piano and Strings is beautiful. Apart from capturing an occasion (a performance in the 13 concert tour of the Arditti Quartet) it delves and probes the players' work, their faces, gestures and almost physical interactions with the printed score as well as with one another. Lacking spectacular effects or superfluous filmic techniques, this short item on the DVD recreates a sense of presence at the performance highly appropriate for the small screen – though the quality would surely be good enough for the big one.

Mode's usual high standard of production is well in evidence on this DVD. The sound quality is excellent and adds to our enjoyment and appreciation of Carter's music for smaller forces. Intended to be played on "any DVD player", the disc certainly worked on all those tried for this evaluation. The booklet (with notes by Paul Griffiths) provides useful background information and – together with the other inserts – confers just the right feeling of an integrated product, presenting for as wide an audience as possible the music of one of the world's most accomplished and stimulating composers. Warmly recommended for anyone who loves Carter's music and is interested in the conception and performance of modern music in general.

Copyright © 2011, Mark Sealey.

Trumpet