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CLASSICAL  November 2008

CLASSICAL November 2008

Subject:

Carter Chamber Music

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Tue, 11 Nov 2008 18:50:20 -0800

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text/plain

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Elliott Carter

*  Sonata for Cello and Piano
*  Figment Nos. 1 & 2
*  Enchanted Preludes
*  Scrivo in Vento
*  Gra
*  Con leggerezza pensosa
*  Fragments Nos. 1 & 2
*  Elegy

Johannes Martens Ensemble.
2L 2L54SACD Total time: 64:29

Summary for the Busy Executive: A quick tour of Carter's chamber music,
relatively early to late.

In December, Elliott Carter will reach his hundredth birthday.  As far
as I know, he still composes.  He began as a pupil of Nadia Boulanger
and Walter Piston and wrote music typical of the American neoclassicism
of the academic northeast: Harold Shapero, Irving Fine, David Diamond,
and Piston himself.  In the late Forties, he began to change.  As he put
it, his model shifted from Bach to Beethoven.  Probably more important
was his contact with Charles Ives, dating from the Twenties, which also
may have strengthened his attraction to Beethoven.

The cello sonata (1948) is one of the first compositions to show that
shift, although there's still plenty of neoclassicism in it.  I consider
it one of his greatest works, big and visionary, and where the technical
innovations don't overwhelm the emotional content.  The large technical
concerns of it have occupied Carter to this day.  In Carter's neo-classical
work, the separate lines fit together in a most satisfying way, like the
click on the lid of a well-made box, to paraphrase Yeats.  In the cello
sonata and in his subsequent, Carter accentuates the independence of the
lines.  The first movement begins with the piano ticking along steadily,
while the cello sings long, insinuating lines which never correspond to
the piano's ticks.  The clock beats, and life goes on to its own rhythm.
At the end, the instruments switch roles, and the movement finishes with
a lone note from the cello.  This leads to a scherzo, jazzy and playful,
which in turn leads to the slow movement, where Carter comes up with his
famous "metrical modulation." The technical detail matters less than the
emotional journey.  In fact, I doubt most listeners would catch the
points where this occurs, at least without a score.  The movement sings
majestically, its notes somewhat severely separated into long and very
short.  The very short notes, reversing custom, represent an increase
of tension, rather than its release -- like the tiny clicks you feel
as you wind up a watch.  Again, the movement ends on a lone note of the
cello.  The finale, a rather Stravinskian allegro (with more metrical
modulations), really moves, recalling earlier ideas along the way.  Toward
the end, you get a return of the opening ticking-vs.-free-flow of the
first movement, and again the movement winds down to the cello all by
itself.  I've known and loved this work for forty years, but it remains
a bit of a mystery to me -- not musically, but of the psychological
neighborhood it inhabits, something like the Debussy in that regard.  I
can't think of another American cello sonata so mature in its emotional
thinking as this one.  It impresses me as having been written by a real
Mensch.

Figment for cello alone nevertheless exhibits Carter's fondness for
conversation as a metaphor of musical discourse.  In this case, the cello
engages in dialogue with itself, as long singing lines get interrupted
with short blasts.  Figment No.  2, subtitled "Remembering Mr.  Ives"
and also for solo cello, I like better.  It has momentary quotes from
Ives's Concord Sonata and Hallowe'en, but even better it evokes the world
of Ives -- its hymns and its bubbling energy -- through relatively simple
and very touching means.

I've got nothing against the Enchanted Preludes for cello and flute,
Scrivo in Vento ("written on the wind") for solo flute, or Gra ("game")
for solo clarinet (dedicated to Lutoslawski), but they really are the
same kind of piece and probably shouldn't have all been programmed on
the same CD.  Nevertheless, Scrivo in Vento stands out for me for its
qualities of serenity and the tightness of its construction.

Con Leggerezza Pensosa: Ommagio a Italo Calvino ("with the lightness of
thoughtfulness: homage to Italo Calvino") for clarinet, violin, and cello
shows Carter's characteristic separation of parts, but it all seems to
hang together nevertheless.  Perhaps despite Carter's intent, it also
strikes me as incredibly sad, although I can't tell you why.

The two Fragments for string quartet live up to their title, in that
they seem to be sketches for something larger.  The musicians play them
without a break.  The first relentlessly stresses the strings in their
high register.  The second has lines approaching each other in pitch,
separating, and coming together again.  For me, neither is all that
compelling.

The Elegy for cello and piano comes from 1946.  Carter arranged it for
strings in 1952, the version heard here -- an elegant, gorgeous bit of
neoclassicism.

It should come as no surprise that this is a Norwegian production or
that all the performers reside in Norway.  Europe plays Carter's music
far more often than the United States does.  Indeed, a good portion of
Carter's American performances come from the academy.  However, two
staunch American Carterites, Charles Rosen and Fred Sherry, get partial
credit for helping with the music.  Whatever their input, the result is
a reading that emphasizes music, rather than technique.  I did not listen
to this disc in SACD, but the normal stereo is fine, if not spectacular.
The sonic image is a bit small-scale, but that doesn't hurt this kind
of chamber music, heavily slanted to solo instruments.  My only criticism
is that Johannes Martens, the cellist and the leader of the ensemble,
has a lighter tone than Bernard Greenhouse, the cellist who introduced
me to the Carter sonata.  On the other hand, he seems to understand the
music better, as well he should after sixty years.  For that matter, as
well we should.

Steve Schwartz

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