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Friday, March 31, 2006
Concerted Effort From Elliott Carter
Elliott Carter
Violin Concerto; Lauds; Holiday Overture. Rolf Schulte, vln; Odense Symphony/Justin Brown, Donald Palma
Bridge 9177

Elliott Carter
Dialogues; Boston Concerto; Cello Concerto; ASKO Concerto. Nicolas Hodges, p; Fred Sherry, vcl; London Sinfonietta, BBC Symphony, Asko Ensemble/Oliver Knussen
Bridge 9184

Elliott Carter spent the majority of his creative effort in the 1960s exploring the technical and expressive potential of a harmonic world that was neither serial nor tonal that would support musical discourse on a large scale. The immediate musical fruit of this labor was the epic cycle of concertos, the seriocomic Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano with Two Chamber Orchestras (1961), the tragic Piano Concerto (1965), and the ebullient Concerto for Orchestra (1969).

During the 70s and for much of the 80s Carter expanded on the musical resources he developed in the 60s in a series of pieces dedicated to the complexities of material and discourse suggested by his harmonic and rhythmic/structural discoveries. As the 80s drew to a close the composer began to pare down the harmonic/melodic materials used in a single piece to a small number of chords. The Concerto for Orchestra had been organized around the partitioning of all of the available three-, four-, five-, six-, and seven-note chords amongst four orchestral groups.

In contrast, the harmonic and melodic material of Fourth String Quartet (1986) is derived from the two all-interval four-note chords and the eight-note chords that result when they are combined. These chords, along with the six-note chord that contains all of the available three-note chords, form the basis of most of Carterís music since the mid-1980s.

Carterís music during the last twenty years has become simpler in form and somewhat more transparent in texture, as well. Gone are the overlapping forms, and cross-cutting of pieces like the Third Quartet (1971) and the Symphony of Three Orchestras (1976). Carterís major works since then have generally adhered to the more ďtraditionalĒ idea of movements following one another in a more-or-less linear argument, or a succession of short movements (more like episodes in a concerto grosso, really) characterized by orchestral subgroups.

The Violin Concerto (1990) is an early example of a Carter piece in which movements follow each other one after another. It is cast in three connected movements, fast-slow-fast. The textures are clear and the role of the solo violin in its relation to the orchestra is in constant flux, from the beginning, when it emerges from a mass of scurrying strings (one of Carterís favorite textures/effects), to the end, when it is a still, small voice after a powerful climax (another of the composerís favorite gestures). Rolf Schulte gives an assured performance of the mercurial solo part, and Justin Brown and the Odense Symphony prove to be able accompanists. The sound is very good, with the soloist clearly audible but not superimposed on the orchestra.

Another new feature of Carterís latest period is the presence in his catalog of short occasional pieces, like the Four Lauds for solo violin. These short pieces are dedicated to friends and colleagues of the composer. Schulte plays them with fire, sensitivity, and style. The disc closes with a headlong account of the early (1944) Holiday Overture. Written in the popular American neoclassical style of the time, it is possible to hear the mature composerís later interests under the boisterous surface of the music: cross-accented counterpoint, streams of music moving at different paces, lines characterized according to the instruments playing them. The Odense Symphony, this time under Donald Palma, give a convincing performance of this very American piece.

The other Bridge disc (Volume Seven in the labelís ďMusic of Elliott CarterĒ series, the disc with the Violin Concerto is Volume Six) includes four concertos (in fact if not in name) written since the composer turned 90. The ASKO Concerto (2000) is a compact (ten-and-a-half minutes) example of the concerto grosso style mentioned above, written for the Asko Ensemble and performed by them here under the baton of long-time Carter champion Oliver Knussen. The Concerto is a collage of tuttis (for the 16 piece ensemble) and subdivisions of the whole, mostly in a light-hearted vein. The playing, as well as the writing, is bold and virtuosic.

The Cello Concerto of 2001 is an episodic unfolding of material designed to reveal the ďcelloís vast array of wonderful possibilitiesĒ according to the composerís program note. In the hands of Carter veteran Fred Sherry, it does just that. Now dramatic, now lyrical, the solo part leads the way in this piece, with the orchestra offering commentary and rebuttal. The Concerto is scored for a full symphony orchestra (the BBC Symphony here, conducted by Knussen), but the scoring is generally chamber music-like, so the cello can sound through. The impact of the full orchestra, when it does play, is greater for its rarity.

The colorfully virtuosic Boston Concerto (2002) is in the concerto grosso mode, with the tuttis being light and effervescent rather than bold and dramatic. The Concerto is made up of 14 episodes, none lasting even two minutes, and scored for different combinations of the orchestra. Knussen conducts the BBC Orchestra is an assured performance that emphasizes both the workís lyricism and its episodic structure.

The most recent piece on the disc is Dialogues (2003) for piano and chamber orchestra. This piece represents yet another departure for the composer, as his recent concerto grosso/episodic style is replaced by a continually evolving discourse that is in some ways reminiscent of his music of the fifties and sixties, without the formal schema of those works. The music unfolds as a terse, concentrated conversation between the piano (played with style and understanding by Nicholas Hodges) and the orchestra (the London Sinfonietta, led by Knussen). The piano and orchestra comment and expand on each otherís music, like friends who know each othersí thoughts and feelings very well.

These discs are important additions to recorded Carter, and are highly recommended to anyone with any interest in the composer.


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