Charles Petzold

Elliott Carter’s Nineties (1999 – 2008)

December 11, 2008
New York, N.Y.

In December 1908, William Howard Taft had recently been elected President, but perhaps more importantly, December 1908 was also the month in which Gustav Mahler conducted the American premiere of his Symphony No. 2 (the Resurrection) with the New York Philharmonic, the month in which Arnold Schoenberg's groundbreaking String Quartet No. 2 (also known as "the one with the soprano") was first performed, the month in which French composer Olivier Messiaen was born, and the month in which American composer Elliott Carter was born 100 years ago today.

Photograph of Elliott Carter from the Boston Globe web site.

According to information available when clicking the Performances link from the Elliott Carter page on the website of Boosey & Hawkes (the publisher of Carter's music), today there will be performances of Carter's music in Montréal, Berlin, London, Birmingham (England), Amsterdam, Helsinki, Vienna, Washington D.C. (the Library of Congress), Mill Valley (California), and Carnegie Hall in New York City (which is where I'll be tonight). Friday evening and the weekend adds Hamburg, Paris, Porto (Portugal), Boston, Cologne, Munich, and Basel to the list.

Over the past two weeks I've been celebrating Elliott Carter's multiple compositional decades with some brief, personal, and superficial descriptions of his music. Today's look at the past ten years will not be quite as long — not because Carter hasn't been keeping up his customary pace, but simply because many of his works composed since 2003 have not yet been recorded.

During his nineties, Carter continued to compose many small works, generally commissions or birthday presents (or both). Carter's larger works are not quite as long as they used to be. Whereas the "typical" Carter work might have been 20 minutes in length, now they're somewhat shorter. In many cases, the longer works contain many short movements or sections, which makes the often episodic character of his work even more explicit. This is the first decade since his forties in which Carter did not write a string quartet.

The 15-minute Tempo e Tempi (1999) is one of my very favorite recent Carter works. Virtually all of Carter's previous vocal music has been based on poems by prominent American poets (although Carter did set Latin texts in Tarantella of 1936 and Greek in Syringa of 1978). Tempo e Tempi sets eight Italian poems: two by Eugenio Montale, two by Salvatore Quasimodo, and four by Giuseppe Ungaretti (but two of these are extremely short). Written for soprano and tiny ensemble (oboe doubling English horn, clarinet doubling bass clarient, violin, and cello), Tempo e Tempi is simply gorgeous, with elegant vocal lines that marvelously caress the Italian syllables, and the last song ("The Poet's Secret" with a text by Ungaretti) is truly haunting.

Two Diversions (1999) for piano is an 8-minute study in polyrhythms but intended to be easy enough to be played by piano students. The 3-minute Fragment II (1999) for string quartet is slow and elegaic, with a nearly constant harmonic drone punctuated with loud outbursts.

The two-minute Retrouvailles (2000) ("homecoming") for piano is yet another birthday tribute to Pierre Boulez, this one for his 75th birthday, mostly more pointillistic than Carter's other piano works, but breaking into fast figures and dense chords. (On March 10, 2009, Boulez will conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in the New York premiere of Réflexions for small orchestra, which Carter composed for Boulez's 80th birthday in 2005.)

The 12-minute ASKO Concerto (2000) was commissioned by the Asko Ensemble of Amsterdam, and written for 16 players, including a percussionist who handles three mallet instruments (xylophone, vibraphone, and marimba) and a pianist who doubles on celesta. The orchestral color isn't quite as obvious as the various fascinating duets and trios sprinkled through the work.

The cello is very much in the foreground in the 18-minute Cello Concerto (2000), commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Daniel Barenboim with Yo-Yo Ma on the cello. Although the orchestra is large and extensively percussioned, it mostly plays in the background or provides punctuation (often loudly) when the cello happens to pause. This is an exceptionally enjoyable work. The cello writing is quite lyrical (particularly in the Lento and Tranquillo — sections 4 and 6 out of 7), and the finale is hair-raising.

4 Lauds (2001) for solo violin combines four commemorative pieces, the second of which was composed in 1984, and the third in 1999:

The score indicates a length of 15 minutes, but the recording I have by Rolf Schulte clocks in at 19:36, and doesn't seem too long at all.

For the listenser, 4 Lauds is a very accessible work: majestic, powerful, moving, lyrical (there are — I swear — brief sections of the Riconoscenza that sound almost like Vaughan Williams' Lark Ascending!), and with a crowd-pleasing finish. I'd love to see Hilary Hahn take on this work. Judging from her recent breathtaking recording of the Schoenberg Violin Concerto, she should have no problem with the technical aspects, and would bring to it her usual intelligent perspective.

Steep Steps (2001) is a 3-minute virtuoso solo for bass clarinet, composed for Virgil Blackwell, so titled because the bass clarinet overblows at the interval of a twelfth.

The Oboe Quartet (2001) is a 17-minute work for oboe and string trio (violin, viola, cello) with six sections built around all the possible duets among the four instruments. This is a playful and exciting work, with some wonderfully fast intricate interplay.

Figment No. 2 (Remembering Mr. Ives) (2001), like the first Figment, is for solo cello. (The score says it's 5 minutes in length, but the two recordings bring it in in under 4.) This is actually more Ivesian sounding than one might even expect from the subtitle. There's a wonderful lyricism in this work, calling to mind the hymns and camp-songs peppered in Ives' music.

Hiyoku (2001) ("two wings" in poetic Japanese) is a 4-minute work for two clarinets with fast complex interplay at the beginning, a lovely slow middle section of long tones, and a fast rippling of notes towards the end.

Carter's Boston Concerto (2002) was commissioned by (surprise!) the Boston Symphony Orchestra. This 19-minute work is divided into 13 contrasting sections, none of which is longer than two minutes and not a clunker in the lot, making the mood and tempo changes very frequent, and exposing the audience to a variety of shimmering, often skittering, orchestral colors.

Au Quai (2002), is an energetic 3-minute piece for the unlikely duet of bassoon and viola, which together give the work a deep rich feel. The title, of course, is pronounced "OK," which are the initials of the 50th birthday dedicatee Oliver Knussen. (Knussen conducted the first performances of Carter's In Sleep, In Thunder, two of the Three Occasions, the complete Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretiam Spei, Tempo e Tempi, and Dialogues, and has recorded Concerto for Orchestra, Three Occasions, Violin Concerto, ASKO Concerto, Cello Concerto, Boston Concerto, and Dialogues.)

Dialogues (2003) is a 14-minute concerto-of-sorts for piano and 18 instruments (but no percussion), and the title indicates the back-and-forth conversational roles of the piano and chamber orchestra. Only rarely can the orchestra match the motor-mouth spritz of the piano, although it certainly tries, and is sometimes driven to dominate strictly with volume. But the piano gets the last word.

Early on in Mosaic (2004), a 10-minute work for harp and 7 instruments (strings and winds), often the harp is virtually unaccompanied, or accompanied by only a fairly sparse texture of instrumentation. But you can't keep a good chamber orchestra down, and whenever the harp stops, it awakens to play and pretty much dominates towards the end.

Matribute (2007) for piano was commissioned by James Levine as a birthday gift to his mother (and really raising the bar on gifts to Mom in the process, I must say). It's a jittery piece with some shifting tempos and rhythms, not quite the ma-tribute that one might imagine. The score indicates a length of 4 minutes, but Ursula Oppens plays it in 2.

Two Thoughts About the Piano (2008) consists of two slightly earlier piano works, the 6-minute Intermittences (2005), with runs of rapid notes intermittentally separated by slower, more chord-heavy passages, while Caténaires (2006) is a jaw-dropping continuous fast run that goes on forever (or at least the 4-minute duration) without a single let-up or change in tempo, and hence sounds like nothing else Elliott Carter has ever composed. Amazing!

(Recordings of many of the compositions I've mentioned can be purchased from the Elliott Carter page at Bridge Records has released seven CDs of Elliott Carter's works that are essential sources for his music of the last three decades.)