Eight Pieces for Four Timpani [selection: Improvisation; Saeta; Canaries]
Sonata for Cello and Piano
Figment V for Marimba [New York premiere]
Quintet for Piano and Winds
Daniel Barenboim (piano) with members of Staatskapelle Berlin [Gregor Witt (oboe), Matthias Glander (clarinet), Ignacio García (horn), Holger Straube (bassoon), Claudius Popp (cello), Torsten Schönfeld (timpani) & Dominic Oelze (marimba)]
Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette
Reviewed: 11 May, 2009
Venue: Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York City
An evening of works by Elliott Carter, whose creativity at age 100 is showing no signs of slowing, was served up at the halfway point of Staatskapelle Berlin’s ambitious Carnegie Hall Mahler symphony cycle, and performed by seven of the orchestra’s distinguished players and their music director, Daniel Barenboim, playing piano.
The ensemble selected a strongly contrasting program of solo percussion showpieces and two major chamber works that were performed with a decidedly central European accent. Barenboim has long championed the music of Carter, giving strongly committed and memorable performances of his orchestral works with the Chicago Symphony at various times during and since his tenure as that orchestra’s music director.
Three strongly contrasting selections from Carter’s Eight Pieces for Four Timpani opened the recital and which employ not only conventional sounds but generate a variety of unexpected timbres created by virtue of unusual stick techniques, most notably holding the mallet down on the timpani head at impact. ‘Improvisation’ is a rigorously-written tour de force, Torsten Schönfeld launching into the work with real energy, displaying remarkable control on rapid-fire passages. ‘Saeta’, drawn from Spanish religious processional music, took on a ritualistic quality alternately suspenseful and ecstatic. ‘Canaries’ has practically nothing to do with birds but with Canarias the renaissance precursor to the gigue; this most rigorous of the three chosen pieces fascinated with its complex rhythmic transformations within its 6/8 time-signature.
Carter’s Cello Sonata, written in 1948, follows a traditional four-movement form but at times pushes tonality to breaking point. The harmonic grammar of the sonata is very much in the orbit of William Schuman, Roy Harris and Peter Mennin. Claudius Popp brought particular intensity to the cello’s rhapsodic line over Barenboim’s cool, rhythmic piano line. Popp and Barenboim walked a fine tightrope between vehemence and calm in this movement; they brought more than a hint at the more radical harmonic direction which Carter’s music would quickly take in the movement’s middle section. The second movement’s opening is reminiscent of concert music that would be forthcoming from Bernstein in the following decade, its tuneful and dynamic opening becoming gradually more jagged and incessant. The Adagio was completely compelling and involved, the harmonic dissonance seeking almost endless resolution until propelled into new territory until the gentle ending. The finale was overflowing with exuberance and energy through to the last bars, ending the work in a mirror-image of the works opening, the cello keeping a steady rhythmic time and the piano’s melodic material bringing the work to its satisfying conclusion. Both players showed real passion — Popp brought forth a remarkable variety of rich sound and Barenboim was clearly at home.
Figment V is a new, brief work for marimba, starting as a restrained soliloquy; its gentle melodic content and tart harmonies propel the work to a series of explosive flourishes. The work lasts less than five minutes; Dominic Oelze left a strong, dazzling impression with this latest Carter miniature.
My last concert encounter with Carter’s Quintet for Piano and Winds didn’t leave me strongly impressed, the work seeming static and a bit too long. The present performance left the opposite impression: all five musicians had a strong handle on the single movement’s complex form, and brought out a powerfully rhetorical and dramatic angle. The slow opening sports sustained winds framed by angular, percussive piano figures emphasizing intervals of a seventh, and the intensity did not let up for the roughly-24-minute duration. Although the tempo is slow, the work is rhythmically very complex; Barenboim was occasionally ‘conducting’ horn-player Ignacio García and clarinettist Matthias Glander, who was in turn occasionally directing the oboist and bassoonist. Especially effective were chorale-like passages from the woodwinds answered by tremolando piano interjections and a similar section near the end of the work as sustained music from all four wind players is interrupted by isolated staccato chords every few bars. The players brought this work to an easy stop with its gentle, unwinding, fragmented conclusion.
All the musicians deserve strong praise for their characterful and committed performances. Carter’s music receives so many performances from American interpreters that it’s a genuine delight to hear this music rendered by players from a completely different tradition, particularly the deeper, warmer timbres of the wind players. All of the performers — and the composer — received prolonged and enthusiastic ovations from an audience that included a great many composers and interpreters of post-war music.