Carter vol5 9128

Déjà Review: this review was first published in August 2003 and the recording is still available.

Elliott Carter (1908-2012)
The Music of Elliott Carter Volume 5 – Nine Compositions 1994-2002
rec. 2001/02, KAS Studio, Astoria, New York
Bridge 9128 [64]

Carter’s muse continues to enthral in these works written during the last decade. Five of these are premiere recordings – Steep Steps, the remarkable Oboe Quartet, Figment No 2, Au Quai and Hiyoku. As well as appearing in this guise played by their dedicatees the works attest to the unbroken sense of concision and undimmed imagination that Carter constantly demonstrates. The earlier four volumes in this series have shown this well enough – now volume five illustrates it with renewed triumph.

Of Challenge and of Love is the earliest work here, dating from 1994; the others are much more recent – Au Quai for instance was written when Carter was ninety-four. Steep Steps (2001) was written for and is here played by Carter’s friend Virgil Blackwell. This is a sliver of a piece, lasting less than three minutes, but it exploits the bass clarinet’s range with ceaseless mobility. Managing to be simultaneously ruminative and conversationally loquacious it exhibits a marked propensity for strong lower register work, which Carter contrasts with the almost abstract writing for the upper register. It ends indeed in the logic of the vertiginous heights of the instrument’s range. The Two Diversions for piano were written for The Carnegie Hall Millennium Piano Book, a gathering of pieces by ten composers written in the hope of appealing to young musicians. The First Diversion is a slow moving, complex Passacaglia-like piece of no few technical demands whilst the Second seems to be implicitly related to the first but is distinctly more animated. The tied bass lends complex rhythmic patterns and defies expectations as to its ultimate direction. Rosen plays it with seemingly effortless understanding.

The Oboe Quartet is a one movement, multi-sectional work of impressive range. It opens with a Moderato in a rather brittle way, crabbed, dogged but gradually the first violin’s lyricism and the cello’s intensity impinge more and more powerfully on the musical argument. Carter uses unison, or duet writing to advance the line. There’s a most impressive tranquillo section that encapsulates in a brief moment of time all Carter’s powers of melodic concision before he unleashes an agitato of exceptionally busy writing. Slow and faster sections contrast, the individual or duet voice against the unison are imperatives of the quartet and, in the final section, he gathers up his material in an act of powerful and cohesive concentration.

Figment No 2 (Remembering Mr Ives) was written for – as is performed here by – cellist Fred Sherry. A brief piece it incorporates – or summons up – Ivesian material from two favourite works, The Concord Sonata and Hallowe’en. Au Quai is energetic, puckish and big. It has opportunities for a wandering bassoon line (it’s written for the unusual combination of bassoon and viola) but also finds time for plenty of lyrical incident. Of Challenge and of Love (1994) is, apart from Three Poems of Robert Frost, Carter’s only song cycle and was premiered at the Aldeburgh Festival. Comprising five poems by John Hollander (b 1926) the first, High on our Tower, is a fizzing, dramatic, unrelenting contemporary setting – fractious and driving. Under the Dome is more allusive, the bell like gnomic restraint of the piano (this cycle has an exceptionally taxing piano part, temperamentally as well as technically) occasionally giving way to a severer curve of accompaniment. Am Klavier is a cool and gentle piece that leads to the cycle’s heartland – Quatrains from Harp Lake. Carter responds to the poem’s many ambiguities and reflections, to the elusive, the half obscured but also to the unvarnished loss and fear, with a variety of masterly means. The soloist and no less the pianist evoke this through recitative, dramatic chordal power and refraction. Soprano Tony Arnold and Jacob Greenberg are vital and powerful interpreters (though she has been rather backwardly recorded).

Figment No 1, again played by Fred Sherry, is a solo of tremendous textual oppositions and develops a real and unmistakeable internal contrastive heat. Retrouvailles (2000) was written for performance at Pierre Boulez’s 75th birthday concert in London. Alluding to previous works written for Boulez it gains similarly, developing weight through the use of contrastive devices. Finally, Hiyoku, which is played by the two-clarinet team of Charles Neidrich and Ayako Oshima – flitting and lively with some moments of reflective intimacy along the way, it makes a fine addition to the repertoire. And it makes a most fitting conclusion to this excellently produced and recorded disc – splendid notes by the way by Malcolm MacDonald – one which displays all Carter’s life-affirming complexity.

Jonathan Woolf

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1 Sleep Steps (2001)
2 Two Diversions (1999)
3 Oboe Quartet (2001)
4 Figment No 2 (Remembering Mr Ives) (2001)
5 Au Quai (2002)
6 Of Challenge and of Love (1994)
7 Figment No 1 (1994)
8 Retrouvailles (2000)
9 Hiyoku (2001)

Virgil Blackwell (bass clarinet) – 1
Charles Rosen (piano) 2, 8
Speculum Musicae – 3
Fred Sherry (cello) – 4, 7
Maureen Gallagher (viola) and Peter Kolkay (bassoon)– 5
Tony Arnold (soprano) and Jacob Greenberg (piano) – 6
Charles Neidrich and Ayako Oshima (clarinet) – 9