Carter What Next?; Asko Concerto
The 40-minute chamber opera What Next? (1997-98) belongs to an extraordinarily productive period during the 1990s in which Elliott Carter completed his great orchestral trilogy Symphonia as well as the Clarinet Concerto and several other important vocal and instrumental works. The title pinpoints the existential dilemma of a group of characters, bound for a wedding, who emerge unscathed but disorientated from a freeway pile-up graphically depicted in a prelude (marked ‘violento’), dominated by ‘heavy-metal’ percussion. Paul Griffiths’s pithy, punning text takes its cue from the opening of Jacques Tati’s film Traffic, although the more sinister, surreal world of Samuel Beckett is never far away either. Carter’s music, switching impulsively between flighty, fleeting lyricism and edgily aggressive insistence, perfectly matches the comic-tragic ambiguity.
The characters are all conscious performers, perhaps even opera singers, given their tendency to indulge in showy wordless arabesques, and even the most basic operatic cliché, the sustained soprano high C, is ironically evoked, unaccompanied and offstage, at the very end. But this is very much an interactive work, the short solo segments yielding to distinctly manic ensembles whose hectic accompaniments screw up the tension still further. The live recording is strong on atmosphere, though in the way it (presumably) reflects the placement of the singers behind the orchestra it risks allowing the characters too little opportunity to assert their various presences. ECM presents the work as a single track, which will not help study-listening – a pity.
The Asko Concerto was written for the Dutch ensemble of that name early in 2000, and Carter provides a typically resourceful 12-minute structure in which the 16-strong ensemble is variously subdivided to engage in a succession of trenchant dialogues and mercurial exchanges. Peter Eötvös is the resourceful conductor, and the studio recording of this very well-played account has admirable colour and character.