Sound Fields [UK premiere]
Cello Concerto [London premiere]
Wind Rose [BBC commission: World premiere]
Mad Regales [UK premiere]
Horn Concerto [London premiere]
Anssi Karttunen (cello)
Martin Owen (horn)
Members of the BBC Singers
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 16 December, 2008
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
To celebrate the centenary of a living composer is one thing; to have a programme consisting wholly of pieces written by him when in his nineties is another. But this was what the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s concert honouring this doughty centenarian was about, and video clips of Elliott Carter introducing the works from his New York apartment before each performance suggested he will be ‘at work’ for a while yet.
An added point of the concert’s interest was the demonstration of Carter’s versatility over his most recent decade. Even the relative economy of his music from then did not prepare one for the austerity, albeit an alluring one, of the pieces which framed the first half. Thus the ethereal stasis of harmony and texture in Sound Fields (2007), whose effect is more than redolent of works that were written around a century ago by Carter’s early mentor Ives, or the poetic astringency – achieved through broadly similar means – of Wind Rose (2008), which similarly evokes the hieratic side of Stravinsky.
Very different in manner, the three settings of John Ashbery (Carter’s astuteness in his choice of European and American poets should not be underestimated) in “Mad Regales” (2007) could likewise only be a product of experience. Thus the heterophonic freedom with which the component lines of ‘8 Haiku’ are bandied between the six vocalists, the barbed whimsy evinced by ‘Meditations of a Parrot’, and the moving rendezvous between the composer’s present and distant past in the pastoral hues of ‘At North Farm’. Carter’s first choral work in six decades could not have greater temporal resonance.
The remainder of the programme consisted of concertos In the Cello Concerto (2000 – the oldest work in this concert!), the composer employs a large orchestra to largely transparent effect – but nothing could be more unequivocal than the brusque confrontation of the opening section, setting out the motivic premises for the six sections (separated by brief instrumental interludes) – each of which has an expressive poise and economy of scoring that are recognisably ‘late’ Carter, and culminating in a surge of brazen energy. Commissioned and premiered by Yo-Yo Ma, and since championed by Fred Sherry, this is a work that deserves to be taken up by enterprising cellists. Anssi Karttunen is clearly one such, his incisive attack and expressive finesse making the most of its manifest virtues.
That such a piece should seem relatively expansive next to the Horn Concerto (2006) is indicative of just how far Carter has travelled during what is often referred to as a ‘late late’ period that has now lasted nearly 15 years. Again there is a succession of sharply contrasted sections that together typify much of the horn’s essential demeanour, though here the individual sections are so compacted and geared toward a cumulative apotheosis (albeit a pointedly underwhelming one) that Martin Owen’s almost continuous contribution risked seeming undersold for all its assured virtuosity.
In this respect, Boston Concerto (2002) is easier to assimilate. In essence this is a ‘concerto for orchestra’ but, compared with Carter’s elaborate late-1960s’ masterwork, it represents a distillation though never a simplification of means. Initial reaction to this piece may well be one of pleasurable bemusement – not on account of its extreme lightness of texture, notably in the earlier stages, but because the building of momentum over its 13 continuous sections feels as much inferred as actual. The ritornellos that connect them largely focus on pizzicato patterns (something that Carter felt he had previously underused in an orchestral context), their uniformity offsetting episodes that focus on contrasted instrumental groupings, while at length serving to incite the musical discourse on to greater expressive heights: a process achieved here with an artlessness which is in itself profound.
The instrumental soloists, members of the BBC Singers and the BBC Symphony Orchestra were all on fine form, but special recognition is due to Oliver Knussen – who not only conducted this demanding programme with all his customary insight and conviction (as well as fitting in an immediate replay of Wind Rose), but whose unstinting advocacy of Carter has made possible the creation of numerous works and so helped to facilitate what has been among the most remarkable ‘Indian summers’ in Western music.