Feature Review – Get Carter! The Music of Elliott Carter

Written by: Richard Whitehouse

13-15 January 2006

Richard Whitehouse attended the whole of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Elliott Carter Weekend – “Get Carter!” – in the Barbican Centre’s cinemas and concert Hall and nearby St Giles Cripplegate and Guildhall School of Music and Drama…

Friday 13 January 2006

Film: “Elliott Carter – Time is Music”

A rare screening of Frank Scheffer’s revealing documentary…

Concert, Barbican Hall


Three Occasions [1: A Celebration of Some 100 x 150 Notes; 2: Remembrance; 3: Anniversary]




Piano Concerto

Nicolas Hodges (piano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra

Oliver Knussen

Concert, St Giles Cripplegate


Musicians Wrestle Everywhere

Harvest Home

Heart Not So Heavy As Mine


To Music

Plus madrigals by Byrd, Morley and Weelkes

BBC Singers

Stephen Cleobury

Iain Farrington (piano)

Saturday 14 January 2006

Film: “A Labyrinth of Time”

Frank Scheffer’s experimental documentary captures the essence of Carter’s music…

Concert, Barbican Hall

Colin Matthews

Two Tributes [1: Little Continuum (for Elliott Carter at 90); 2: Elegeia (in memory of Chris van Kampen)]


Clarinet Concerto

Double Concerto for harpsichord and piano with two chamber orchestras

Michael Collins (clarinet)

Ian Brown (piano) & John Constable (harpsichord)

London Sinfonietta

Oliver Knussen

Concert, St Giles Cripplegate


String Quartet No.5


String Quartet No.4


String Quartet No.1

Arditti Quartet [Irvine Arditti & Ashot Sarkissjan (violins); Ralf Ehlers (viola) & Lukas Fels (cello)]

Concert, Barbican Hall


Holiday Overture


A Symphony: New England Holidays – Decoration Day


Of Rewaking [London premiere]




Variations for Orchestra

Jane Irwin (mezzo-soprano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra

David Robertson

Sunday 15 January 2006

Film: “South Bank Show: Elliott Carter”

London Weekend Television’s South Bank Show introduced the world of Elliott Carter to a mainstream television audience…

Film: “Quintet for Piano & Strings”

Award-winning director Frank Scheffer’s combinations of sound and image have redefined the nature of films about music.

Concert, St Giles Cripplegate


Night Fantasies


Some Southpaw Pitching [Study No.21]


Klavierstücke, Op.33a & 33b


Études, Book 2 – Étude pour les sonorités opposées


Piano Sonata

Rolf Hind (piano)

Concert, Music Hall, Guildhall School of Music & Drama


Five Orchestral Pieces, Op.16


The Minotaur – Suite

Symphony No.1

Guildhall Symphony Orchestra

Diego Masson

Concert, Barbican Hall


Music for strings, percussion and celesta


Oboe Concerto

A Symphony of Three Orchestras

Nicholas Daniel (oboe)

BBC Symphony Orchestra

David Robertson

Not for a little while has the American composer Elliott Carter (born in 1908) – 97 years young last December – been considered a difficult composer to ‘get’ in terms of grasping the essence of a musical language that has evolved over seven decades. These eight concerts, which formed the latest in the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s annual composer-weekend (held each January at the Barbican), provided the opportunity to do so – bringing together a number of musicians whose identification with this music can hardly be doubted, and also offering an overview of his output that, while not in itself inclusive, was certainly representative of his overall achievement.

The concerts (also broadcast on BBC Radio 3 with the Saturday evening BBCSO concert shown on BBC4) were placed in the context of talks and foyer events, as well as four films that themselves provide alternative perspectives on Carter’s music. Not least the welcome re-screening of Alan Benson’s 1986 documentary for the “South Bank Show” – a lucid and informative introduction, with archive and in-studio musical excerpts, that puts to shame similarly intentioned films by more illustrious directors. The other films were directed by the indefatigable Frank Scheffer, starting with his 1988 documentary “Time is Music” – a consecutive foray into the very different worlds of Carter and John Cage; typified by footage of the former methodically refining a phrase during rehearsal, and of the latter exhorting participants in one of his grandly chaotic “Europeras” to even greater anarchy.

Scheffer’s recent filmed performance of the Quintet for Piano and Strings – featuring Ursula Oppens and the Arditti Quartet – leaves a decidedly subjective impression, and the real highlight was his “A Labyrinth of Time”. Shot over the decade prior to its release in 2004, this 90-minute investigation of Carter’s creative psyche is set against the backdrop of a New York whose constant cultural change becomes the metaphor for his own musical odyssey. Pertinent and often amusing comments from advocates such as Charles Rosen, Daniel Barenboim and Pierre Boulez, and the touching presence of the composer’s wife Helen – filmed at their apartment not long before her death in 2003 – help round out this engrossing perspective of a figure for whom composing has long been synonymous with his establishing an identity – defiantly individual and deeply human – within his surrounding environment.

Comparable insights were to be gleaned from music by other composers included throughout these concerts, often at Carter’s own request. Thus Friday’s late-evening choral recital included a selection of Elizabethan madrigals such as Carter sang and conducted in Paris and Boston during the 1930s, and whose airy part-writing and – in the case of those by Thomas Weelkes – deft harmonic dissonance bridges a gap of 350 years with uncanny ease. From the very recent past came Two Tributes (1999) by Colin Matthews – juxtaposing the speculative gestures of ‘Little Continuum’ (for Carter’s 90th birthday), and the eloquent processional of ‘Elegeia’ (in memory of cellist Christopher van Kampen).

Context was otherwise provided by Carter’s mentors and contemporaries: Schoenberg’s Five Pieces (1909), in a charged if intonationally approximate account from the Guildhall Symphony Orchestra, and the Opus 33 Piano Pieces (1931) thoughtfully rendered by Rolf Hind – who gave inspired readings of Debussy and Ives’s uproarious Some Southpaw Pitching. The latter’s Decoration Day yielded up its wistful fantasy at the hands of David Robertson, whose masterly control of rhythm and texture made for a formidably coherent Music for strings, percussion and celesta (1936). Bartók was also represented by his Fourth String Quartet (1928), though here the new-look Arditti Quartet only hit the mark in a smouldering central Lento.

Carter’s American contemporaries, Roger Sessions and Aaron Copland were represented by a work apiece. Sessions’s Rhapsody (1970) is a resourceful breviary of his stark but highly expressive idiom, world’s away from current trends, while Copland’s Connotations (1962) caused no mean controversy at the opening of New York’s Lincoln Center – though, for all its harmonic asperity and sinewy contrapuntal writing, this is music that harks back to the American Modernism of the inter-war years (not least of Copland himself) more than it blazes a trail for the future, and its often dutiful traversal of a well-tried ground-plan lacks the conviction that Sessions and Carter evince in their music of the period. Yet in a performance of such granitic intensity as that by Oliver Knussen, it could scarcely fail to leave its mark – and, in common with all these pieces, was well-worth including as an illustration of the cultural background against which Carter forged his own, highly personal aesthetic, while resisting the urge felt by the European avant-garde of the 1950s to reject the achievements of Western music prior to the Second World War.

What resulted is a musical idiom in which radically new approaches to harmony and rhythm are balanced by a ‘classical’ lucidity of form: in short, a synthesis of tradition and innovation that is without equal in the post-war era.

And, as the pieces included from the 1930s and 1940s revealed, such a synthesis was slow to mature. The earliest works, the gently ecstatic “To Music” and rumbustious “Harvest Home” (both from 1937), have a neo-classical poise hardly out of place in the music of its era – and one barely ruffled by the greater modulatory freedom of “Heart Not So Heavy As Mine” (1938).

These were all persuasively given by the BBC Singers and Stephen Cleobury, while Diego Masson and the Guildhall Symphony Orchestra brought considerable pathos to the ‘First’ Symphony (1942) – its unpretentious Americana revealing, notably in the opening movement, a rhythmic subtlety and a textural transparency very different from the symphonic rhetoric of Carter’s peers. With Holiday Overture (1944) – its closing canonic fusillade electrifying in the hands of Robertson – and the florid madrigal “Musicians Wrestle Everywhere” (1945), the expression takes on an exuberance redolent of Tippett, yet also a complexity that even a flexible diatonic framework serves to put in a straitjacket such as inhibits the music’s inherent dynamism.

Obstacles that the Piano Sonata (1946) overcame by focussing on the organic power of intervals to articulate a large-scale design; the music’s underlying consonance being less reliant on a tonal basis to a degree that intensified rapidly over the succeeding five years. Hind made the most of the first movement’s contrast between stasis and activity, and if its successor’s central fugue was a mite too headlong, the glowing resonance of the final pages distilled a rapt tranquillity. Neither of the works Carter wrote in its wake approaches it in achievement, though it was good to hear the suite from the ballet The Minotaur (1947), and here prefaced by the plaintive oboe transcription of an Ancient Greek monody made for the occasion by Carter) – its overtly Stravinskian soundworld thoughtfully savoured by Masson – while the baleful rhetoric of “Emblems” (also 1947), with Iain Farrington shining in the bravura concertante role for piano, makes explicit the need for a renewal that Carter was soon to undertake.

With the First Quartet (1951), this renewal was followed through in earnest. Not that Carter was the first composer to marry Beethovenian weight with Schoenbergian density, but the music’s rhythmic fluidity – secured through the means of ‘metric modulation’ as he never termed it, but which he raised to a formal principal of far-reaching cohesion – has a temporal velocity and a cumulative impact never before attained. The Arditti Quartet (with new second violinist Ashot Sarkissjan and Lukas Fels replacing Rohan de Saram after his 30-year tenure) duly took up its challenge with alacrity – investing the rugged duo exchanges of the Adagio with visionary emotional intensity, then finding a rhythmic ‘give’ in the dynamism of the closing ‘Variations’ that offset any tendency toward expressive overkill.

Simpler in procedure but even more integrated in design, Variations for Orchestra (1955) pointedly embraces the European ‘tradition’ in music which powerfully combines short-term variation with long-term transformation – culminating in the first of those Carter apotheoses that explode only to evanesce. Resisting any temptation to bathos, Robertson galvanised the BBC Symphony Orchestra into as purposeful and coherent a reading – in its drawing of a diversity out of the inherent musical unity – as this work can have yet received.

Carter’s 1960s’ output consisted of just three pieces, two of which featured in this retrospective. Knussen has long championed the Double Concerto (1961) – this being at least his fourth account in two decades – and the present performance captured its extremes of activity and uneventfulness, order and chaos, conflict but never consolation. The quick-fire interplay between harpsichord and piano was potently dispatched by, respectively, John Constable and Ian Brown, spurring their respective ensembles on to fêtes of rhythmic interplay in a telling synthesis of the demonstrative and the self-contained.

This intense yet detached study in irreconcilability is evidently a product of the ‘high’ Cold War era – within which the Piano Concerto (1965) occupies a much more equivocal position, as regards both its formal concept and expressive impact. A daring attempt to remake the ‘heroic’ concerto-archetype for the modern world, it has not been without exponents (notably Charles Rosen and Ursula Oppens), but has not been heard in the UK for some 19 years and was urgently in need of new advocates.

Now – fresh from his success with Carter’s recent Dialogues – Nicolas Hodges has taken on the challenge and, with Knussen directing it for the first time, presented Piano Concerto for what it is: a two-part dialogue between unequals whose expression becomes keener the more that its gestures are separated and ultimately rent beyond hope of communication. Hodges’s clarity of figuration helped ensure the opening movement proceeded as a single sweep of intensity, while its more discursive successor benefited from a balance that made sense of the interplay between the orchestral mass and the concertante group that vainly tries to bridge the ‘divide’ with the piano. The intricate yet febrile orchestration – no percussion except for the two sets of timpani that pulverise but fail to obliterate the soloist, in a gripping enactment of the struggle for self-assertion – was equally well delineated: Carter looked surprised it had come together so well – and if he felt thus vindicated, he had every right to be so.

That the weekend lacked the Concerto for Orchestra, from 1968, was a disappointment, for it would have completed the 1960s’ triptych, but it did include A Symphony of Three Orchestra (1976) as that work’s equivocal rejoinder. Carter made of Hart Crane’s reckless inter-war apotheosis to America a decidedly uneasy commemoration of the bicentennial year – its liquid opening trumpet solo and fragmentary final piano cadenza framing a taut, eventful span whose three orchestras do not so much project spatially as with Stockhausen or Berio, but superimpose their music in layers of activity that together generate a cumulative surge towards the violent yet inscrutable denouement. With Robertson securely in control of proceedings, the interpretative outcome made for a powerful conclusion to the Weekend – albeit on something of a downbeat within the context of Carter’s orchestral legacy past and, as we now know, still to come.

No one could have predicted an output extending across the next three decades, and the music of Carter’s ‘late period(s)’ has been a heartening feature of London’s musical life throughout that time. Of the six pieces here included, Night Fantasies (1980) was given an often insightful performance by Hind, even though the soft-focus ambience of St Giles made the complex interplay of gestures sound fugitive rather than speculative. More satisfying was the Oboe Concerto (1987) – seemingly a relative also-ran in Carter’s oeuvre, but rendered by Nicholas Daniel with an expressive range whose humanity and understatement pointedly anticipate the works to come.

Knussen now brings greater weight to Three Occasions (1989) – a ‘sinfonia brevis’ lacking nothing in gravity or exuberance (and with finely attuned trombone playing from Helen Vollam in ‘Remembrance’). The Arditti brought sharp-etched characterisation to the pithy continuum of movements and interludes of the Fifth Quartet (1995) – a formal approach which has become the benchmark of Carter’s latest creative decade – though the Pacifica Quartet has evinced a more varied response with little loss of rhythmic accuracy. Something not lacking in Michael Collins’s performance of the Clarinet Concerto (1996), his assured handling of its expressive contrasts at one with his nimble platform choreography in this effervescent piece.

Which brings us to the London premiere of the song-cycle “Of Rewaking” (2002) – settings of William Carlos Williams that do not so much heighten the emotional charge of each poem as throw it into equivocal relief. Jane Irwin was as in command of the craggy rhetoric inherent in “Lear” as she was the restraint of those songs either side: finding a poignancy in the closing “Shadows” that is permeated yet never burdened with experience – and wholly removed from any thought of an ‘old man’s trifling’.

Attendance for the Barbican concerts, decent but far from capacity, confirmed what one had already expected – that Carter’s music, respected among the cultural ‘great and good’ as well as the critical fraternity, is far from attaining wider acceptance. Perhaps this is inevitable, given that its density of expression is unlikely to find favour with mainstream concert-goers any more than it is with those drawn to such divergent sonic experimenters as Xenakis or Cage.

Yet as this Weekend demonstrated, it is hard to remain aloof from the provocative impact – as much emotional as intellectual (if they can indeed be separated) – of the Piano Concerto; not to feel compelled by the brinkmanship of the Double Concerto; or be invigorated by the maelstrom of activity that is A Symphony of Three Orchestras. The stylistically conservative earlier works still impress through their technical finish, while the more
recent pieces remind one just how much Carter has made human endeavour central to his musical discourse. In an era dominated by electronic manipulation and cynical nostalgia, it is an achievement to be cherished – and one that Carter’s affirmative presence throughout the Weekend made more so.

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