Notes and Editorial Reviews
On Conversing with Paradise
Poems of Louis Zukovsky
Martin Owen (hn); Oliver Knussen, cond;
Frank Epstein, cond; New England Conservatory Perc Ens;
Leigh McIrose (bar); Oliver Knussen, cond; Birmingham Contemporary Music Group;
Peter Kolkay (bn);
Charles Neidich (cl); Juilliard Str Qt;
Simon Boyar (mar);
Lucy Shelton (sop);
Jon Nelson (tr);
Rolf Schulte (vn); Fred Sherry (vc);
Donald Palma (db);
Hsin-Yun Huang (va);
Lucy Shelton (sop); Charles Neidich (cl);
William Purvis (hn)
BRIDGE 9314 A/B (2 CDs: 103:11
Text and Translation)
Elliott Carter, now in his 102nd year, is on a roll, and is a phenomenon. It doesn’t overstate the point to say that here we are witnessing a composer’s late-age musical flowering unprecedented in human history. This double-CD set includes 16 new works, all written since 2002 (when the composer was 94). Only one is from 2002, and one is from 2006; the remainder are 2007–09.
this collection doesn’t include everything written in this period. Do the math.
It would be remarkable enough if this were just a matter of quantity. But this is also music on an elevated level of expression, technique, and questing vision. While dense and concise in the manner of late Stravinsky, neither are they offhand bagatelles or doodlings. In fact (though I’ve said this too much already, I suspect), Carter’s “late-late-late” period is producing some of his finest work, distinguished by a combination of adventure, clarity, and total confidence. The impact of the almost two hours of music here is comparable to many hours more from some other composers.
With so many works in play, I think it’s a mistake to run through a critical exegesis of each piece. All of these will merit several listenings over time to parse out the details and get a better sense of their individual characters. Rather, I’m going to make a few global observations.
First, Carter has become more “experimental” as he’s aged. This is not so much in terms of taking up aesthetics alien to what he’s already committed himself to over the years. Rather, it has to do with meeting the challenge of ensembles and media he’s avoided in the past (for whatever reason). Thus, in the 2008
, we have a work for six percussionists, all with instruments of relative or no distinct pitch. (The piece is one of the few that doesn’t quite work for me, but how marvelous that the composer has jettisoned pitch as a factor to see what he’ll come up with!) Even more stunning are the 2007
for string orchestra and the 2008
for wind ensemble. These are slowly shifting, relatively static textures, cycling through different permutations of complex 12-note chords. They’re about as close to Morton Feldman as Carter will ever get, but of course they still sound utterly Carteresque in their harmonies.
Second, Carter’s vocal music has grown in ways I could not anticipate. After a series of neoclassic choral works in the 1940s, he left the voice as a medium until the 1970s, beginning with the song cycle on Elizabeth Bishop poems,
A Mirror on Which to Dwell.
I was impressed by the work, but successive cycles on Ashberry and Lowell struck me as overly cluttered, and not particularly grateful for the voice. But over time, Carter has refined his vocal practice. Now, having continued his pursuit of an A-list of modernist poets, I think he’s developed a technique that is eminently suited to these texts and their aesthetic. The vocal line still tends to be proclamative, a sort of modernist recitative, but it is stripped down, and more careful in prosody and projection of text. There’s less angularity and fewer wide leaps. And it doesn’t shy away from memorable and
gesture; for example, the 2008 Pound setting
On Conversing with Paradise
culminates with a near-terrifying reiteration of the line “Pull down thy vanity!” The Zukovsky settings for soprano and clarinet (also 2008) are marvels of tone-painting, with the two principals distinctly characterized and each idiomatic. And the 2007
, three compact settings of Ashberry for a six-voice ensemble, is sparkling in its wit, invention, and beauty, a true new madrigal form. To take just one example, in the first text, each one of its eight lines is intoned by a different solo voice, against a slowly morphing, prismatic setting of the word “haiku” by the remaining five.
Third, Carter has created the most authoritative body of solo instrumental miniatures of anyone. Like Hindemith, he seems to be checking every orchestral instrument off his list (though these works have no accompaniment). The closest analog is the Berio
, but Carter’s pieces are bagatelles in comparison. In one sense they’re slighter and more offhand. On the other, they tend to avoid the overambition and ponderousness that can weigh down some of Berio’s essays. Whatever the final judgment, they seem to be a great gift to performers, who reciprocate with gratitude, love, and programming. The
are a series that project consistent wit and fantasy. The
are works derived quite literally from other pieces; for example, the first written, the 2002 bassoon work, is a largely unaltered transcription of the instrument’s solo from the 2000
. The notes suggest that these pieces pay tribute to Carter’s lesson learned from Nadia Boulanger, namely that every contrapuntal piece must be made up of individual lines, each of which could stand as an autonomous work.
Finally, Carter has not forsaken his trademark complexity and prolixity. The 2006 Horn Concerto is fast, intense, quicksilver. Though tiny, the same goes for the 2009
The 2007 Clarinet Quintet has all of Carter’s trademark rhythmic devices of overlaid polytempos and metric modulations, but it also erupts in barrages of notes for its soloist that one can hardly believe. A thing that is astonishing about this work, and not only because of the age of its creator, is its sheer
, the ability to write as many notes as needed to make its point, with no limit.
All performances are stunning, as usual for the Bridge series (this is Volume 8 in its Carter canon). A few of the larger works are taken from live performances, but under the sure hand of Oliver Knussen, their execution is impeccable and ambient noise negligible. It’s almost a cliché for me now, but this probably goes on the next Want List. Essential listening for anyone who wishes to be aware of one of the most remarkable musical enterprises currently still in process.
FANFARE: Robert Carl