Notes and Editorial Reviews
One of the most difficult aspects in considering the works of a composer with a complex, characteristic (some might say hermetically sealed) style like Carter's is that there's always a temptation to take the lazy way out and just assert that, "Well, it all sounds like Carter, and if you like Carter then you'll like these pieces." And when the performances are as good as these clearly are the attractions of taking the easy option become all but overwhelming. Alas, for good or ill, critics are supposed to offer opinions not just about the quality of performance, but also regarding the works themselves when they are new. The problem with doing this successfully (or even plausibly) in Carter's case is that his music asks to be judged by its own standards, and probably the only person adequately qualified to say anything intelligent in this regard is Elliott Carter himself. Still, that's never stopped me before, and it's not going to now. Having lived with this disc for some time, here's the bottom line: not all of this music is equally good, but some if it is really enjoyable.
Shard, for solo guitar, is a zippy and appealing little two and a half minute trifle that, as the title implies, sounds like a piece of something bigger, but one with an edge to it. That something bigger (and edgier) turns out to be Luimen (the title is Dutch and means "whimsical moods"), of which Shard comprises the third of four continuous sections, albeit with additional instrumental commentary. The word "whimsical" aptly describes Luimen, and any composer worth his salt better have his tongue in his cheek when writing for an ensemble consisting of trumpet, trombone, harp, mandolin, guitar, and vibraphone. Why does Carter's style work so well here? Well, first of all, traditional tonality would almost inevitably force a composer into well-worn melodic and harmonic pathways hardly suited to such an unequal and strange assortment of instruments. The result would probably sound merely foolish, whereas Carter's music, with its layered approach to complex rhythms and other simultaneous musical happenings celebrates and exploits the timbral potential of just such an unbalanced instrumental grouping. Take for example the work's second section, in which lovely soft chords from muted brass, harp and vibraphone serve as a background to sudden plucks from the mandolin and guitar, or the very end of the whole work, which is exquisitely timed to produce a really humorous effect. In short, this piece delivers the goods, and does so with a smile.
The same, alas, can't be said for Tempo e tempi, a song cycle set to various Italian poems and scored for voice, oboe/English horn, clarinet/bass clarinet, violin, and cello. Here the means must be at least somewhat more traditional because the point of any song cycle is the expressive enhancement of the text through music (which is the not the same thing as mere musical illustration, mind you). Three of the songs, "A Dove", with its softly warbling clarinet, "Sunken Oboe" (the musical potential is obvious), and "The Poet's Secret", with its luminous accompaniment, accomplish this goal. The remaining five, whatever private meaning they may hold for the composer, sound as if he could have been setting excerpts from the Manhattan yellow pages, for all their expressive specificity. He's also let down by a recording that places everyone, including soprano Susan Narucki, too close to the microphones, resulting in flat aural perspectives and tonal monotony (though everything else on this disc sounds great). And let's face it, you really can't place any work with lots of solo oboe (no matter how fine the player) far enough away from the microphones, can you?
That leaves us with the celebrated Eight Pieces for Four Timpani. This seminal work, beloved of percussionists, belongs as much in the practice room as it does in the concert hall. Carter himself requests that no more than four of these brief studies ever be played at one time, recognizing the potential for aural fatigue. Daniel Druckman accommodates their metrical and polyrhythmic complexities with virtuoso flair, and he's recorded clearly enough so that the music never turns into mud. Curiously, their interest being primarily rhythmic, these pieces make pretty easy listening for anyone who enjoys virtuoso drumming or music with a certain primal quality. Our Western tradition is filled with works in which an amazing sophistication of technique evokes ancient or primitive ritual music (think of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring or Les Noces, Varèse's Amériques, Ginastera's Popol Vuh, or Cage's Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano), and Carter's timpani pieces fall squarely into this tradition, however personal the actual idiom.
So there you have it! Now well into his 90s, Carter continues to write challenging, stimulating music, and to enjoy the enthusiastic support and loyalty of a tremendously talented group of musicians, not least the members of Speculum Musicae. The fact that he employs a highly evolved and complex personal style with limited broad appeal should not, in the final analysis, excuse anyone--supporters, detractors, or even music critics (who ideally should belong to neither category)--from taking each work as it comes and giving it due consideration accordingly. I may be wrong, but I seriously doubt he'd want it any other way. It should also come as no surprise that not everything he writes is equally good. After all, he may be the Grand Old Man of the American avant-garde, but in all other respects he's only human, and so is his music when you come right down to it. [3/4/2002]
--David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com