Edinburgh International Festival – Elliott Carter

Sonata for cello and piano
Inner Song, for solo oboe
Piano Quintet
Sonata for piano
Four Lauds, for solo violin
Oboe Quartet

Hebrides Ensemble:Stefan Schilli (oboe), Alexander Janiczek & David Adams (violins), Catherine Marwood (viola), Will Conway (cello) and Simon Parkin (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 28 August, 2005
Venue: The Queen's Hall, Edinburgh

The Edinburgh International Festival has done Elliott Carter proud over the years, not least in a cycle of his quartets from the excellent Pacifica Quartet two years ago. This concert brought the Hebrides Ensemble in a recital of chamber works spanning 55 years of Carter’s maturity, and featuring two major works written at the time of his transition from a secondary figure to a leading Modernist composer.

Certainly the Cello Sonata (1948) is his most played larger work, though the sharply differentiated characters of each instrument still presents problems of balance and co-ordination as can undermine the effectiveness of the whole. Not so here, in a fine performance from Will Conway and Simon Parkin – as telling in the witty repartee of the scherzo and robust vigour of the finale as in the ruminative Adagio and equivocal interplay of the opening Moderato: the latter completing a harmonic-rhythmic cycle that, by adopting the order of movements as it stands, Carter throws pointedly off-kilter.

Even so, it was Parkin’s account of the Piano Sonata (1946) that readily stood out. Other pianists have brought greater excitement to the fugal development in the second movement, or more nervous intensity to the outlining of its constituent themes, but few have brought so deep a repose to the transcendent coda or rendered the first movement with so sure yet flexible an appreciation of its unorthodox format. Although seen as representative of earlier Carter, the Sonata’s speculative tonal follow-through, articulated by an imaginative handling of keyboard resonance, is hardly Classical in the conventional sense – something amply borne out by this impressively controlled performance.

These relatively early masterpieces opened each half of the evening, both followed by shorter works in which Carter’s understanding of melodic continuity is most potently distilled. Oboist Stefan Schilli succeeded handsomely in the lyrical inflections of Inner Song (1992), but violinist Alexander Janiczek struggled to make the Four Lauds cohere as an overall sequence. In part, this is due to the disparate genesis of the individual pieces, with the rigorous virtuosity of ‘Statement’ and ‘Fantasy’ (both 1999) complementing each other ideally in their ‘remembering’ of Copland and Sessions respectively, but rather awkwardly framing the fine-spun intensity of the Petrassi homage ‘Riconoscenza’ (1984) and compacted energy of the (former Juilliard Quartet leader) Robert Mann tribute ‘Rhapsodic Musings’(2000). As commanding as Janiczek was in these latter pieces, his response in the outer pair seemed determined more by outward display than by any deeper probing of the music’s expressive potential.

Each half ended with a piece from Carter’s astonishingly prolific latest (hopefully not last!) decade. Both are cast in the succession of pithy character-types, separated by anticipatory or recollecting interludes, often encountered in his recent chamber works (notably the Fifth Quartet). In the Piano Quintet (1997), these constitute an expanded sonata-type movement whose formal cohesion seems grounded in the thinking of late Beethoven or early Schoenberg. Acerbic and capricious, it is a very different proposition from the Oboe Quartet (2001) – whose more subtle eliding between sections suggests rather the model of a Baroque dance suite or a chamber concerto. What both works share is a fluency borne not of complacency but of absolute ease with the idiom that Carter has evolved over the preceding half-century: an idiom whose very classicist Modernism has no peers and looks to have few, if any successors in a synthesis which time has only served to make the more remarkable.

In both pieces, moreover, the Hebrides Ensemble was wholly responsive to the music’s exacting yet invigorating requirements. An excellent night for the musicians, then, and for the music itself. Hopefully the Edinburgh Festival’s planners will really pull out the stops should Carter make it to his centenary in 2008!

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