JWR Articles: CD - Music of Elliott Carter (Conductor: Oliver Knussen) - February 13, 2006
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Music of Elliott Carter

Volume Seven

4 4
61 min.

Bridge Records 9184
Carter disc delectable

The seventh offering in Bridge Records’ series dedicated to the work of Elliott Carter is a wonderful array of the venerable composer’s recent compositions. Spanning the years 2000-2003, the composer asked that the track order commence with the freshest: Dialogues. Happily, the producers obliged and, in fact, the whole CD plays backwards in chronological time.

As it turns out, that decision was a good one because the only live recording, Asko Concerto, is the weakest of the collection. This study in contrasts (instrumental, rhythmic, dynamic) comes across more intellectual than emotional. Despite having the same conductor, Oliver Knussen, the ensemble can’t match the BBC and London Sinfonietta musicians’ agility and skill. Barre Bouman’s clarinet is nimble enough, but his somewhat fluffy attacks contribute to the slight lack of ensemble tightness demanded by the score. Similarly, the extended “chat” between violin and trumpet is good but not great. Nonetheless, the sheer volume of sound produced often belies their numbers, giving the performance much punch when required.

Fred Sherry is the convincing soloist in Cello Concerto. From the beautifully understated opening, which cuts through the orchestral bombast of the accompanying soundscape, his technical surety and near-perfect double stops thoroughly engage the ear as Carter captivates the mind. Unforgettable is the central “Lento” where Sherry’s plaintive wail survives then surpasses the chattering winds and purposely disjointed intensity that builds marvellously. In the truly “Allegro fantastico,” the soloist ably pucks and scampers over the strings while his colleagues flutter about in awe. Once the tympani sounds last call, and the band replies in full-cry tumult, the cello delivers one final cadential interjection before the music dissipates into a single tone.

The ever-dependable Knussen leads an invigorating reading of the multi-sectioned Boston Concerto. Here are the headlines:

  1. Frantically busy—“Listen to me!”
  2. Calmer approach; woodwinds lead, who will follow?
  3. Pizzicato “R” Us, with help from the mallets
  4. Piano asserts itself; good vibes all around
  5. Nervous utterances; the orchestral mouth goes dry
  6. Big tune takes stage: snipers everywhere
  7. Scatter and run: no one to lead
  8. Metallic depth; massive resolve/insurgents fail to distract from purpose
  9. Regroup! But how?
  10. A few at a time; strings scold and hold
  11. “Onward—time’s running out,” stammered all
  12. The last hurrah; full bow to the heavens; a few pot shots, very nearly accord
  13. Uneasy. All defect save one (Ed: see final note of Boston Concerto)

Dialogues is remarkable both for the high level of performance and the beautifully captured sound. Nicolas Hodges tosses off the considerable technical challenges with ease. Memorable is the series of decaying piano chords, followed by mainly string-answering crescendos: the balance is perfect as it celebrates the reality of sound production in disparate instruments.

The title could more aptly be changed to Arguments.  But not just the frequent bursts of anger depicted by Carter’s gruff angular orchestration, there are many sections (including one momentary glimpse of light) where the music is truly a “discourse intended to persuade.” One such example comes after a particularly sharp tutti blast, followed by Gareth Hulse’s seductive English horn, surrounded by a “calmo” string mist, evoking a distant memory of Copland’s Quiet City. More visual than intellectual, this work demonstrates conclusively the adage “you’re not getting older, you’re getting better.” JWR

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Conductor - Oliver Knussen
Composer - Elliott Carter
Piano - Nicholas Hodges
Cello - Fred Sherry
Repertoire:
Dialogues (2003) for piano and chamber orchestra
Boston Concerto (2002) for orchestra
Cello Concerto (2001)
ASKO Concerto (2000) for chamber ensemble
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