Carter Dialogues; Boston Concerto; Cello Concerto

Elliott Carter in the Indian summer of his remarkable career – a late bloomer

Author: 
K Smith

Carter Dialogues; Boston Concerto; Cello Concerto

  • Dialogues
  • Boston Concerto
  • Concerto for Cello and Orchestra
  • Asko Concerto
  • Concerto for Violin and Orchestra
  • (4) Lauds
  • Holiday Overture

There are composers who get a second wind late in their career – and then there’s Elliott Carter. Late bloomers such as Verdi (to whom he’s often compared) usually make a dramatic coda to their careers, but Carter’s burst of productivity in his nineties has actually revealed a noticeable change in musical direction. Their respective rate of maturity notwithstanding, a more fitting comparison would be Ginastera, another composer who began in an accessible folkloric style, turned almost excessively complex in middle age, and reconciled the two in his late maturity.

Having these two volumes of Bridge’s Elliott Carter series arrive almost concurrently helps put the composer’s career in perspective. Despite the pleasing tonality and unapologetic American-ness of Carter’s 1945 Holiday Overture (the connection with Ives’s Holidays Symphony worn handily in its title), the dense counterpoint and rhythmic complexity are nonetheless already in place. The aggressively modernist Carter we usually think of came of age shortly afterward and is still going strong in the Violin Concerto (1990), where musical lines remain unrestrained by tonality or conventional rhythmic pulse. Those lines may not be as individualistic as in the composer’s chamber works but they nonetheless need firm guidance from the podium. Justin Brown shows a sure sense of each line and its destination, making instrumental outbursts more purposeful and less impulsive than they might otherwise seem. It provides, in fact, a nearly unified orchestral front against Rolf Schulte’s fairly lyrical solo playing, with textural contrasts duly marking emotional contrasts.

Four Lauds for solo violin, part of an ongoing series of short virtuoso works, traces Carter’s more recent transition, from the assertive Riconoscenza per Goffredo Petrassi (1984) to the more freely ‘romantic’ (the composer’s own description) Rhapsodic Musings (2000). Though hardly as prevalent as his chamber works, the inner musical lines remain surprisingly vital, setting up a palpable internal counterpoint that Schulte deftly navigates.

At first glance, Dialogues (2003) would seem to be in the old Carter model, where different musical lines unfold with such clearly delineated personalities that they’re often compared to characters in a play. Carter describes the piece as a conversation between piano and orchestra, but the lively discourse continues with little of his former abrasiveness. This is civilised cocktail chatter rather than a raucous town meeting, with musical points respecting each other’s space rather than yelling each other down. The Cello Concerto (2001), by contrast, is more a solo oration with some periodic cheers from the crowd. A full decade away from the Violin Concerto, the piece falls back much more squarely on traditional string phrasing and playing technique, but under soloist Fred Sherry the rhetoric is less of a crutch than a platform to make the main points clear and fresh.

Without the benefit of soloists, the remaining concerto grosso works here, the ASKO Concerto (2000) and the Boston Concerto (2002), indeed confirm a change in Carter’s musical approach. It might be too much of a stretch to blame this new-found clarity on the composer writing his first opera in 1999 (at the age of 90!) but clearly Carter has started letting his musical ideas sing as well as shout.

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