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Elliott Carter, Part Three

Elliott Carter
American composer Elliott Carter turned 95 this month. It's hard to believe, but in spite of his advanced age, Carter continues to compose. Just since the millennium, he has written orchestral works, concerti and chamber pieces. Some, like the Asko Concerto (see below) and What's Next?, have already been recorded. Others, like the impressively received Cello Concerto (written for Yo Yo Ma), are crying out for recorded documentation.

So, in honor of a milestone birthday, and to wrap up our three-month survey of his recordings, this month's column takes a look at some recent large-scale Carter works. We will also discuss his string quartets, a genre with which he is perhaps most frequently associated.

What's Next?/Asko Concerto (ECM)
Not all famous composers have composed operas. Brahms, for instance, never wrote one. Beethoven, on the other hand, finally did complete a single opera, Fidelio, but not without enormous struggle. Other composers wrote little besides opera; Wagner and Verdi will never be known for their few efforts outside of works for the stage.

Despite Carter's flair for vocal writing, and the dramatic nature of many of his instrumental compositions, by 1997 it appeared that Carter would be a composer who never wrote an opera. After all, who would compose their first opera at age 88?

A collaboration with music critic/author Paul Griffiths (who wrote the libretto), What's Next? is Carter's first opera, begun at the tender age of 88! A one-act opera, it was first performed in Berlin in September of 1999, sharing a double-bill with Schoenberg's Von Heute auf morgen.

ECM's premiere recording of the work is conducted by Peter Eotvos, leading the Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra. The performance is lithe and lively, featuring a sextet of vocal soloists. Much like Carter's chamber compositions, in which each instrument takes on a separate "character", each of the vocalists has its own distinct gestural and musical vocabulary. This is meant to portray the different personae of the various characters: a bride, a mother, an astronomer, a seer, a bridegroom and a young boy. As such, What's Next? helps to make Carter's dramatic approach to composition, so wedded to a presentation of individual strands vying against one another in a constant dialogue, all the more clear by means of the textual expression of a libretto.

As the opera is relatively brief, clocking in at forty minutes, ECM fills out the disc with a recording of the Asko Concerto, also with Eotvos conducting the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra. This chamber concerto is scored for sixteen instruments, a kind of modernist concerto grosso. The performance is noticeably slower than others that I have heard of this piece, but it is by no means ponderous.

Elliott Carter -- Symphonia: sum fluxae pretium spei and Clarinet Concerto (DG)
Two of Carter's most important large-scale compositions from the 1990s are given World Premiere recordings here. The Symphonia(1996) was Carter's first symphony since the Symphony of Three Orchestras (1976). Cast in three movements (each was originally a separate commission), the piece makes a very large orchestra seem quite light on its feet, filled with agile linear counterpoint and pungently dissonant harmony. The Symphonia is performed by the London Sinfonietta, conducted by Oliver Knussen.

The Clarinet Concerto is equally imaginative in its scoring. The soloist is pitted against discrete sections of the orchestra (strings, winds, percussion, etcetera) in successive sections. Live, you watch a subtle choreography take place; the soloist moves around the orchestra to stand by each section as it is their turn to play. Only at certain points in the work does the group play tutti passages. This clever conceit serves as a dramatic device, giving the audience a visual display of the work's design: a dramatic interplay between soloist and group. It also serves a practical purpose: by partitioning the orchestra into smaller groups for most of the sections, Carter avoids swamping the soloist with thick passages of orchestral writing. This performance is also conducted by Knussen -- this time, he works with the BBC Symphony and soloist Michael Collins.

String Quartets

Juilliard String Quartet: The Four String Quartets (Sony)
Arditti String Quartet: The Music for String Quartet, Vol. I (Quartet Nos. 1 and 4), (Etcetera) and The Music for String Quartet, Vol. II (Quartet Nos. 2 and 3, Elegy) (Etcetera)
If I had to pick a single genre with which to identify Elliott Carter, it would be the string quartet. Carter has twice been awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music, and on both occasions it was a string quartet (in 1960, the Second, and in 1973, the Third) which garnered the award. What's more, with each quartet can be seen a shift in compositional style; they are cut from new cloth rather than fashioned like one of the preceding works. The string quartet seems to serve as Carter's laboratory, one in which he tries out the most daring incarnations of his various compositional techniques (metric modulation, interval stratification, all-interval chords) before distilling them into works for the orchestra or other groupings.

Both of the collections above only include the first four string quartets. The sole recording of the Fifth Quartet, by the Arditti, was reviewed in a previous File Under ?. Still, spanning the years 1951-1986, the first four Carter quartets represent a significant segment of his compositional activities.

Choosing between the Arditti and Juilliard renderings of these pieces is a judgement of taste rather than one of quality. Both quartets perform these terribly difficult works superlatively, but each has a markedly different approach.

The Juilliard Quartet is one of the most venerable chamber ensembles in America, famous for taking on nearly the entirety of mainstream string quartet literature, performing everyone from Mozart to Beethoven, Brahms, Schonberg, Berg and, yes, Carter. As such, the Juilliard's performances of the four quartets are imbued with a sense of connection to history. No one can doubt that the rhythmic difficulties, particularly metric modulation, in the Carter works were a departure from what had gone before, but the Juilliard plays them as if this obstacle does not preclude other significant connections to compositional predecessors like Ives, Schonberg and even Beethoven.

The Arditti Quartet, on the other hand, specializes in contemporary music. Not surprisingly, they take a thoroughly modern approach to the Carter quartets. Their phrasing is incisive, angular. Disjunctions are made more abrupt; where the Juilliard might find soft edges, there are instead razor-sharp surfaces. Rhythmically, their performance of the metric modulations is taut, whip-like in its accuracy.

The energy the Arditti brings to the table is compelling, but I am glad that there are multiple renderings of these works available on CD (in addition to the sets mentioned here, several other quartets have assayed individual Carter string quartets). They each expose different facets of these most elaborate and variegated works.

Last year, I attended a performance of all five Carter Quartets at Columbia University's Miller Theatre. This marathon was undertaken by a relatively young ensemble, the Pacifica String Quartet. Their performance of all of these difficult works on a single evening was most impressive, not only from the standpoint of stamina, but also due to the considerable facility and artistry they displayed.

I was even more impressed by another feat of stamina: the audience's ability to get through the material. Miller Theatre was packed, not just with the usual gray-haired audience I've become accustomed to seeing at a chamber music concert, but with a young crowd of twenty-something students and thirty-something professionals. Unlike many new music concerts, which are populated by the composers on the program, as many of their friends and families as they can drag along, and other (stylistically sympathetic) composer colleagues, this crowd included a number of people who weren't necessarily part of the new music "scene".

All of them had realized that something special was afoot. These Carter works, despite their challenging demeanor and post-tonal craggy harmonies, are imbued with an undeniable energy that resonated with many in the audience who were otherwise fans of rock and jazz. This wasn't stuffy classical music to them -- it was music that had a vitality that reached across stylistic boundaries, particularly in the Pacifica's enthusiastic performances.

Instead of bailing out after one, two, three, or four quartets, almost the entire audience stayed until the end of the evening. When the Pacifica took their final bow, you would have thought that they, and Elliott Carter, were rock stars.

Happy Birthday EC, and many (compositionally prolific) more.

Happy Holidays and a healthy New Year to File Under? readers -- thanks for reading, and for your encouraging feedback.

Questions, comments, etcetera, are always welcome; just click on the author's name below and send an email.

Thanks once again to Duke University Library, Tina Pelikan of ECM Records and Dr. John Link of William Paterson University for their assistance.

-- Christian Carey



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