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RECORDING OF THE MONTH

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Elliott CARTER (1908-2012)
Late Works
Interventions (2007) [17:09]
Dialogues (2003) [13:05]
Dialogues II (2010) [4:30]
Soundings (2005) [8:12]
Two Controversies and a Conversation (2011) [10:25]
Instances (2012) [7:11]
Epigrams (2012) [13:58]
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano: all except Instances); Colin Currie (percussion: Controversies); Isabelle Faust (violin: Epigrams); Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello: Epigrams)
Birmingham Contemporary Music Group
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Oliver Knussen
rec. 2015, CBSO Centre, Birmingham (Dialogues, Controversies); 2016, Maida Vale Studio 1, London (Interventions, Soundings, Instances); 2016, Teldex Studio Berlin (Epigrams)
ONDINE ODE1296-2 [74:42]

It boggles the mind that the works on this disc were composed when Elliott Carter was beyond 90 years old and several of them when he was over 100. This CD is appropriately titled “Late Works.” It is even more astonishing that his compositional powers were not at all diminished and, if anything, show increased refinement. This is not to say that any of the pieces make for easy listening or do not challenge one’s expectations. However, with clear textures and brilliant orchestration they leave the listener with great admiration for Carter and help to seal his place as one of the past and current century’s great composers. Heretofore, I found his music rather intractable, but with more exposure and especially with these late works, I am actually beginning to fully appreciate Carter’s art.

All but one piece, Instances, feature piano, and five of the seven works are premiere recordings. The earliest of these late compositions is Dialogues, a short concerto for piano and chamber orchestra that Carter composed for pianist Nicolas Hodges. According to John Link’s scholarly notes in the CD booklet, the composition with its title’s Platonic allusion requires the “piano and orchestra engage in a variety of exchanges – from argumentative vying for the floor, to supportive elaboration of the other’s point of view.” However, before this can happen, the work begins with a rather inelegant and repetitious English horn solo that reappears later in the piece. As with several of these compositions, the piano gets the last say by playing a single, low note. Hodges recorded the work earlier with the London Sinfonietta also under Oliver Knussen in a superb recording that includes other concertos: the Boston Concerto, Cello Concerto, and ASKO Concerto (Bridge - review). Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s account here is, if anything, even more attractive. His performance is a bit gentler and warmer, and he brings out a whole array of colours that Hodges does not quite equal. Hodges, though, is very powerful and more percussive in his slightly cooler approach. Really, both interpretations have plenty of merit and I would not want to be without either, especially since the earlier disc contains two delightful works not otherwise available to my knowledge.

Seven years after Dialogues Carter composed a companion piece for Daniel Barenboim’s 70th birthday, Dialogues II. This much shorter work is similar to its predecessor in its instrumentation and antiphonal nature. There is, indeed, much packed into a brief space. It is worth quoting Link’s description of the work’s beginning: “After its initial solo is opposed by a low and grumpy outburst from the brass, the piano mocks them with its own low-register thundering.” So it goes throughout the piece until the orchestra builds to “an enormous roar from the full ensemble, held for a shockingly long time.” Again the piano gets the last word. I find Dialogues II easier to assimilate than its predecessor. Maybe Carter was mellowing in his old age! The performance here is everything one could expect.
 
The longest work, Interventions, was commissioned by the Boston Symphony for conductor James Levine and pianist Daniel Barenboim. Carter wanted to showcase both the orchestra and the piano, so he created a composition that is part piano concerto and part tone poem. The piano and orchestra, thus, are treated as equals. As Link points out, “to celebrate the musicians for whom he was writing (and perhaps to tease them a little), Carter created a tongue-in-cheek ‘clash of Titans’ opening.” He has the note A, represent “La” for Levine being corrected to B-flat for Barenboim. This juxtaposition of notes occurs throughout the work. The piano part is more declamatory with the orchestra playing sustained lines, though interrupting with outbursts in the brass. The trombone has a nice solo, too. If anything, the orchestral part overall seems more engrossing to me than that of the piano. On the other hand, during the last third of the piece the piano tends to dominate and add interest. Carter thought of Interventions as contest and it is not clear who would prevail at the end of the work. After a final orchestral climax, the piano loudly declares a sustained B-flat which the orchestra then boldly changes to an A. This goes back and forth until both “finally explode in exasperated trills…a blur of comic conflict that somehow also sounds like a ringing affirmation,” according to Link. A fascinating piece that Aimard and Knussen capture to perfection.
 
Daniel Barenboim was also instrumental in the composition of Soundings. The Chicago Symphony commissioned the work when Barenboim was music director. Like an eighteenth-century concerto grosso, he would conduct the piece from the keyboard. Otherwise, there is nothing of the Baroque era about Soundings. The piano appears only in the introduction and the coda. The work is in ten continuous sections that alternate solo instruments with orchestral tutti. This appealing and very colourful piece is probably the easiest to like of these late works, with solos by horn, clarinet, trumpet, flute, etc., leading to a long tuba solo that lasts from about 6:00-7:00 before strings and percussion take over and the piano re-enters. I can’t think of another composition, other than a tuba concerto, where the tuba is in the limelight for such a significant part of the piece. The whole work seems like a mini-concerto for orchestra. I must say it is marvelously well played here.

Possibly the most unusual work on the programme is the Two Controversies and a Conversation for piano, percussion, and chamber orchestra. Carter composed this mini-concerto for percussionist Colin Currie, who performs it authoritatively here. Originally, the piece was simply a “Conversation.” Then, upon the suggestion of Oliver Knussen, Carter added two short prefatory movements, each under two minutes, and the work was retitled as listed here. Mallet percussion and drums play a major role with the marimba in particular standing out, though the piano is an equal player and has the last word as the piece concludes on a piano chord.

The only composition here not to include piano as a solo instrument is Instances for chamber orchestra, which Carter dedicated to Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony. The composer described the piece as “a series of short interrelated episodes of varying character.” The orchestration is vivid with significant solos by horn, trumpet, and others. It also contains a noteworthy vibraphone part that gives the work and otherworldly feeling and instances of humour by the contrabassoon and other winds. Roughly the last third of the piece is the coda where, as Link describes it, “against the slow ticking of the piano, long arching phrases in the strings stretch across increasingly portentous silences.” The silences between the piano tones are indeed lengthy and are briefly relieved by a solo flute before the work ends quietly with strings and piano. Morlot recorded Instances on the Seattle Symphony’s house label in what one might consider an authoritative performance (review). Knussen’s is perhaps more refined than Morlot’s, but not as symphonic—more chamber-like. Both approaches seem valid to me and both receive first-class treatment.

Epigrams for piano trio is Elliott Carter’s last composition. He dedicated it to Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who is joined here by violinist Isabelle Faust and cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras. Carter is quoted as saying he wrote Epigrams to amuse himself! These brief, terse pieces, which are obviously difficult to perform, would challenge the mind of someone half his age. It is truly astounding that he completed them at age 103. There are twelve “epigrams,” the longest of which is well under two minutes. While I found all of them absorbing, I was especially taken with the seventh that is all pizzicato, the tenth with its high harmonics, and the last, which ends with pizzicato strings and a final, quiet “plunk” after a long silence. There are rather longer pauses than necessary between the movements, but that is probably what the composer intended. The performances here may be considered definitive, at any rate.

I cannot think of a better way to honour Elliott Carter and his vast compositional career than this CD. It is a pity he did not live long enough to hear these recordings. Along with the exceptional performances in state of the art sound, the thorough and well written notes further contribute to what is surely one of the best discs of contemporary music released so far this year.

Leslie Wright

 




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