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Carter: The Complete Music For Piano / Charles Rosen

Release Date: 11/18/1997 
Label:  Bridge   Catalog #: 9090   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Elliott Carter
Performer:  Charles Rosen
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 0 Hours 57 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

In the previous issue of Fanfare, I reviewed a release featuring Carter's Fifth String Quartet, which made my 1998 Want List. This disc continues an ongoing celebration: By the time you read this, Carter will have entered his 91st year, and he shows no sign of slowing down. Indeed, his production curve is unprecedented in American classical music, maybe in music history. A meticulous worker, throughout the 50s, 60s, and 70s, Carter tended to produce about one large work a year. Throughout the 80s and into the 90s, his rate of production seems to have increased. Likewise, the range of genres in which he has worked has grown—there are now oboe, clarinet, and violin concertos (where before there was only piano), and in November 1998 a new Read more opera (his first) was premiered in Berlin. Add to this host of instrumental miniatures, solos and duets, a fifth string quartet, a new song cycle—well, the fecundity of it is astounding. Critically, I don't like all the music equally, but I also have to say that I'm consistently finding new works of Carter's that thrill me, and the more recent they are, the fresher they seem.

This recording is outstanding. Carter's three piano works cover almost 50 years (from 1945-46, for the Sonata, to 1994's 90+). There is a great wealth of invention and inspiration embodied in all three pieces. The Sonata comes from the extraordinary "transitional" period of Carter's output (the great Cello Sonata is another example) when the composer was abandoning his "populist/nationalist" style and moving toward greater modernist complexity; this combination of accessible an experimental elements makes it seem even more important today. Night Fantasies (1980) finds Carter at the height of said modernism. 9()+, while small in scope, bespeaks an extraordinary concision, clarity, and wit. Though still very much in Carter's mature voice, it somehow feels almost jazzy in its cyclically varied riffs over repeated chords.

To deal with the works in slightly more detail, the Sonata is extraordinary for its intersection of harmony and rhythm. What I mean here is that the melodies, built out of the overtone series (and emphasized by ghosts of tones left resonant by careful and extensive use of the sostenuto [middle] pedal) seem to grow and develop, almost to vibrate with a preternatural fluidity, which is in turn the result of a rhythmic sense of great suppleness. Carter has always been interested in the "prose" quality of musical time, i.e. its capacity to declaim with great rhetorical freedom (as opposed to musical "verse," which obeys metrical constraints). While the often overwhelming complexities of later works push this tendency to extremes, the Sonata's demands always seem to grow out of some natural grounding, even when they explore previously unimagined realms.

Night Fantasies is of course far more dense and knotty, though Carter is careful to emphasize particular chordal structures in such a way that can really be heard by a listener willing to give him/herself over to the music. He does this by highlighting specific intervals, each associated with a particular context. The result, while highly chromatic, never sounds "atonal." (Of course, it certainly doesn't sound traditionally tonal either.) But above all, what distinguishes this music over its 20-minute span is the prolixity of ideas, the abundance of detail, the profusion of arabesque. Probably no piano piece written since World War II has reinvented piano practice so idiomatically, projecting such a grand excess.

Having said this, I also have to offer a small heresy. I admire Night Fantasies, and am frankly amazed by it on repeated listenings. It is a triumph of imagination and dramatic sense. At the same time, I find it hard to love the way I do the Sonata. The reason is harmony; the Sonata has not only the same sort of invention in detail and rhythmic flow, but it is resonant in a manner perhaps unequaled before or after. It's possible that with another 40 years we'll hear Night Fantasies as being as accessible as the Sonata, but it also could be heard as one of the highest mannerist flowerings of a musical style that had nowhere else to go after its pinnacle. What makes the Sonata so relevant to today's new-music scene is precisely that balance between the harmonic and the rhythmic, that zone in which fearsome complexity still sounds open and effortless, where things just fit with one another.

Strange to say, 90+, the most recent work, sounds far more harmonically inviting and transparent to me than Night Fantasies, perhaps because its textures are leaner and its dimensions more compact. A bit like late Stravinsky, it says exactly what it needs to with no excess. One starts to have the unnerving feeling while listening that Carter may be in fact preparing the ground for some new breakthrough; we shouldn't put it past him.

Charles Rosen plays this music with a depth of understanding and empathy that comes from both great musicality and a penetrating intellect. It's almost unfair that someone who plays so beautifully can also write as profoundly as he has on musical topics. Rosen has a particular gift that is a godsend to Carter's music: He can project clear structures, both in phrasing and larger spans, like almost no other performer of these works I've heard. Listening with the score of Night Fantasies, I felt that Rosen knows when to charge through a gesture and when to linger ever so slightly (the same effect, by the way, comes without watching score). His is genuine interpretation, in that he brings to performance a creative and thoughtful sensibility analogous to the composer's. I've listened to Stephen Dairy's performance of Night Fantasies on Neuma 450-76, and the difference is instructive. Drury in some ways nails the precise note-to-note wonders of detail in the work better than Rosen (frankly, with a piece of this difficulty, any pianist presenting a recording is going to be of a caliber to have the notes and rhythms fully under control). But at the same time, I do feel the piece exists in a slightly more "moment-to-moment" form in his hands, while in Rosen I feel the necessity of certain events when they arrive. Ursula Oppens's performance of 90+ on Auvidis Montaigne (782091, reviewed last issue) probably brings out the jazzy filigree of the work better, and I find this quality ravishing, but again Rosen projects the architecture more clearly. As for the Sonata, I almost wept by the piece's end, Rosen's performance being so passionate and the work's culmination being so cathartic. Frankly, I wouldn't want to give up any of these performances, because these are all spectacular pianists. But I do feel Rosen has a particular spiritual kinship with Carter that shapes and delivers these pieces to us as wholes.

The sound is wonderful, and there's a bonus track of a conversation between Rosen and Carter where the wit and geniality of the composer comes through. This program is the first to present all three pieces, and when combined with Rosen's artistry, it makes for a major release. A great document of American music.

-- Robert Carl, FANFARE [1999]
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Works on This Recording

90+ by Elliott Carter
Performer:  Charles Rosen (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1994; USA 
Date of Recording: 12/1996 
Venue:  MasterSound Studios, Astoria NYC 
Length: 6 Minutes 13 Secs. 
Sonata for Piano by Elliott Carter
Performer:  Charles Rosen (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1945-1946; USA 
Date of Recording: 1982 
Venue:  Netherlands 
Length: 22 Minutes 41 Secs. 
Notes: Ver: 1982 
Night Fantasies by Elliott Carter
Performer:  Charles Rosen (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1980; USA 
Date of Recording: 1982 
Venue:  Netherlands 
Length: 21 Minutes 0 Secs. 

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