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Surround Sound : New SACD from 2L: Chamber Music by ELLIOTT CARTER - Figments and Fragments
New SACD from 2L: Chamber Music by ELLIOTT CARTER - Figments and FragmentsFor this album of music by Elliott Carter, on GRAMMY award-nominated Norwegian label 2L, cellist Johannes Martens has assembled some of Norway's foremost young musicians. Tracing Carter's development through some of his most creative periods, these works - from the beautiful 1946 Elegy and the celebrated Cello Sonata from 1948 through to newer pieces for solo instruments, duo, trio and string quartet - constitute nearly a cross-section of musical evolution in the 20th century's second half.

Heard individually, the chamber works of Elliott Carter give the listener tantalising snapshots of the composer's style and technique; as a group, they represent a microcosm of his musical personality. Any selection of several pieces by the same composer will inevitably reveal similarities, traits, and preoccupations. But here is also great variety and resourcefulness: in one piece, an affectionate and playful tribute to a fellow musician; in another, a sustained grappling with the very substance of musical time; and in yet another, a dialogue or conversation between multifaceted protagonists that bring an unmistakably social aspect into musical discourse. And all the while, the music flows through a plethora of moods and characters, at one moment playful, the next impassioned, now agitated, now wistful. It is this dynamism that most distinguishes Carter's music from that of his peers; its restlessness and its ability to turn on a hair from the most skittish characterisations to the most poignantly human outpourings, but always flowing and always carrying the listener along on the tide of its composer's invention and ingenuity.

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Of the ten pieces recorded on this disc, no fewer than eight of them were composed when the composer was in his eightieth year or later, the most recent being Figment No.2: Remembering Mr. Ives for solo cello, composed in 2001 when Carter was 92. Over fifty years separate its composition from those of Elegy and the Cello Sonata, and while many changes in Carter’s method and style can be discerned, the voice is unmistakably the same: more fluent, perhaps, and with a lighter touch than in earlier works – the mark of confidence of a supremely experienced craftsman – but also still palpably radical and individualistic in spirit, presenting formidable challenges to the performers while retaining an essential playfulness and freedom.

In addition to the works presented here, Carter has written many other chamber and solo works. The five string quartets, Duo for violin and piano, Night Fantasies for piano, and many other works form a major part of his oeuvre. While the Cello Sonata matches the scale and ambition of these works, the shorter pieces on this disc can serve as a good introduction to many of Carter’s preoccupations and methods, shedding light on ideas that contribute to the complexity of many of his larger works as well as being rewarding in their own right.

The Sonata for Violoncello and Piano occupies a singularly important place in Carter’s output. It is substantial and satisfying, the work of a fully mature and confident composer, yet is also radical and innovative, driven by a sense of fresh discovery. It represents a breakthrough in rhythmic technique and a new approach to chamber music, and makes a break with Carter’s previous style of writing.

The Sonata is cast in four inter-related movements of roughly equal length. Its first movement (Moderato) was in fact the last to be composed, and has been of some significance to Carter as the first instance of “stratification” of the musical elements in his music. The relationship between the cello and piano is here formalised so as to make them unusually distant from one another: the cello plays expressive, flowing lines which seem to exist for the most part in a completely different musical time from the piano’s inexorable, regular pulse. Carter has stated that this opening passage was suggested by the rhythmic freedom of the jazz improviser from his rhythm section, and one can certainly imagine the measured ticking of the piano as a kind of walking bass, with little pointillist additions forming the remainder of the texture.

This sense of rhythmic freedom is actually strongly controlled by means of careful rhythmic notation in the cello part – the cello part actually seems to avoid playing on the piano’s beat, thereby emphasising the difference between the two instruments and their modes of expression (rather than trying to bridge this gap – as had been the case in previous chamber music – or merely to ignore it). Following the movement’s definitive opening, the tension increases as the two instruments intensify their given materials independently, until a short cello solo at the movement’s mid-point gives way to flowing sixteenth-notes, first from the cello, then from the piano, and finally in unison as the two instruments reach a climactic point and work together for the first time. The movement ends with a thoughtful reprise of the initial relationship between the two protagonists.

In one sense the second movement (Vivace, molto leggiero) begins where the first left off, with a predominance of minor thirds; but where the first movement took its cue from jazz in an abstract sense, the second borrows the jaunty rhythms, offbeat accents and syncopations of jazz and pop music in a much more straightforward fashion. The two instruments flow freely through various rhythmic motifs together, imitating and reinforcing one another. By the central section this relationship has become more complex, with the cello’s impassioned lyrical lines and triple/quadruple-stops counterpointed by piano tremolos (written out in quintuplets) and emphatic chords. While the initial character does re-establish itself briefly, the movement ends in a general mood of turbulence and unrest.

The third movement (Adagio) is the emotional and expressive heart of the Sonata and also contains the first instance of arguably the most important technical innovation in Carter’s music: metric modulation. Essentially a device Carter uses to move seamlessly between different tempi while maintaining a consistent pulse through the music – thereby creating opportunities for completely new rhythmic relationships between instruments – metric modulation makes its first substantial appearance in the central section of this movement (although there is a brief instance in the first movement, there it is reversed after a few bars). The movement begins with the cello’s bold melodic re-interpretation of the piano tremolo figures from the previous movement. But this mood soon gives way to a more poised, reflective section in which the cello and piano exchange versions of a rhythmically characterised modal phrase. The rhythm that gradually emerges in the piano part is in fact a division of the bar into three and four equal durations simultaneously, and gives rise to an exquisite conjunction when the new rhythmic technique is caught in the moment of its discovery, transforming seamlessly a rhythmic embellishment of melody into a new structural direction. At this moment, paradoxically, musical time seems briefly to stand still, as if appraising a new territory before stretching out into it.

As the music becomes more elaborate, more metric modulations crank up the tension, until a climactic re-statement of the cello’s opening theme over stark piano octaves. Like the previous movement, the third closes uneasily, this time with an impassioned cadenza-like flourish from the cello.

The final movement (Allegro) unleashes the massive tension built up in earlier movements with a torrent of activity: the complexities of successive metric modulations create a thrilling ebb-and-flow through the interplay of the two instruments’ melodic strands. The central section is a playful partita (game) between the increasingly flighty and whimsical gestures of the two instruments. However, the earlier frantic material soon resurfaces and catapults the music through further rhythmic complexities towards recollections of the first movement – some emphatic, some wistful – and finally subverts the original relationship between the two protagonists: for a moment the cello’s pizzicato forms the mechanical background to the piano’s free bass line, but almost as soon as this new terrain is glimpsed, it is gone, and the piece is at an end.

Figment for cello alone contains a variety of characters and techniques that belies the fact that all its material is derived from the first two bars, and makes it seem a more substantial piece than its 5-minute duration would suggest. The cursory opening gestures are expanded to present a range of “contrasting, dramatic moments” in sequence: sudden outbursts; rough, marcato chords; fast, flowing lines with trill-like passages; pizzicato (incorporating the left hand as well as snap or Bartók pizzicato); and expressive melody. The various elements take turns to carry the musical narrative. Firstly, ever-expanding melodic phrases are ‘answered’ by the various other types. An episode mixing some of the more active elements gives way to another melodic passage in the cello’s upper register. Pizzicato material, then fast, flowing lines take over for a while, but all the time there are little interjections and ripostes from the other strands. The melodic material reaches an emphatic climax, and the piece concludes in reflective mood, leaving all the other elements in play.

Figment No.2: Remembering Mr. Ives was written as a present for the cellist Fred Sherry, and is unusual for Carter in that it contains fragmentary “recollections” of two works by Charles Ives, the Concord Sonata and Hallowe’en. The piece has four contrasting sections. A majestic, declamatory opening section utilizes many double-stops, in which the cello seems to skirt heroically around and across the beat, arriving firmly on the beat only with two emphatic major tenth chords rooted on the cello’s bottom two open strings – both of these sonorities also appear prominently in the first Figment. Then a melodic section marked “hymnic” and “tranquil” leads into a more playful caprice played entirely in harmonics, before an expressive outpouring brings the piece to its tranquil, slightly quizzical conclusion. Throughout the piece, major thirds and fifths predominate, lending harmonic and melodic consistency to the work’s diverse characters.

Enchanted Preludes for flute and cello, composed in 1988, exemplifies some of the ways in which Carter’s approaches changed in the forty years since the Cello Sonata. For here, rather than emphasising the considerable sonic and associative differences between his two instruments, he draws their materials into one fleet-footed, airy space in a scherzo of gossamer lightness. The two parts are however given separate musical materials with which to play: they use different intervals throughout, the flute’s minor thirds and the cello’s major sevenths being particularly noticeable; and they play in different pulses, with the flute usually in triple rhythms across the cello’s quadruple rhythms. Both of these techniques are typical of Carter’s practice of establishing dividing-lines between instruments as ‘characters’; but in Enchanted Preludes there is also a constant exchange of ideas, a virtuoso display in which a flute staccato is echoed by a high cello pizzicato, or a legato plunge to the bottom of the cello’s range is answered by the flute’s soaring parabola, and always returning to the light, feathery tremolos, flourishes and repeated notes with which the work begins.

As has been heard in the Figments for solo cello, Carter is capable of carrying his fascination for interactions between diverse musical characters even into works for solo instruments, and Scrivo in Vento illustrates the sophistication and inventiveness of his approach. It has the sense of logic of a Bach Prelude, but also the freedom to move about within its own expressive universe, a universe gradually discovered and mapped throughout the piece. Here Carter sets three very distinct elements in opposition to one another, and the piece unfolds as a drama of their explorations and arguments. The slowly developing, melancholy line in the flute’s extreme low register that begins the piece is interrupted periodically by sudden violent outbursts of extremely high notes, and then juxtaposed with virtuosic flowing passages. As the slow line works its way into the flute’s higher registers, this virtuosic material makes its way to the bottom of the instrument, while the continuing violent outbursts remain in implacable stasis focused on a high C sharp until almost the piece’s mid-point, when the line moves haltingly downwards and combines with the lower melody. From here on, each of the three elements is given its moments in the spotlight, occasionally adding features to its character. By the end of the piece, the three characters seem to have learned to co-exist without coming closer to one another, except in the very last uneasy gestures, when elements of each of the characters subtly combine to suggest, tentatively, the possibility of agreement.

Con Leggerezza Pensosa: Ommagio a Italo Calvino for clarinet, violin and cello takes as its starting point a remark by the author Italo Calvino:
“Above all I hope to have shown that there is such a thing as a lightness of thoughtfulness, just as we all know that there is a lightness of frivolity. In fact, thoughtful lightness can make frivolity seem dull and heavy.”
(Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1988.)

Such a statement could easily refer specifically to much of Carter’s chamber music output, and in Con Leggerezza Pensosa Carter explores its sentiment with an intellectual playfulness that would surely have delighted its dedicatee. Although a trio in which the instruments are again given distinct intervals and rhythmic divisions, they function as if they were diverse parts of the same instrument, or aspects of the same person: throughout the piece runs an unbroken line which is shared between the instruments, continually varying its character and direction while the other instruments follow it, counterpoint it, or anticipate it. The effect of this is almost always to amplify rather than to contradict or subvert the main line, and this makes the piece feel more like one of Carter’s solo pieces than another chamber work; the line seems to interact with parts of itself rather than to some outside force. This restless piece finds its still, “thoughtful” centre with a sequence of sustained, compact five-note chords – actually different manifestations of the same six-note set in varying transpositions – but even here the mood is repeatedly returned to “lightness” by playful interjections that propel the work towards a series of increasingly insistent outbursts. Finally, the illusion of the trio’s collaboration is revealed with a short flourish from each of the instruments separately, before the final sputtering statement of unity.

Carter’s playful nature is again on show in Gra (‘game’ in Polish), a tribute to his friend Witold Lutosławski. The piece is another instance of the solo line interacting with itself, revealing different character traits and setting them against each other as it goes along; but in Gra the juxtapositions take place in such a way as to give the impression not of one ever-changing line, but of several simultaneous parts weaving in and out of focus. This rapid interchange is set up from the first bar, when spiky outbursts momentarily seem to puncture the melodic line without breaking it. Soon another ‘part’, a flowing virtuosic stream of exceptional lightness and deftness is introduced, and what follows seems to keep all of these strands of material in play, even though in fact only one can be present at any given time! At times, the texture almost breaks down completely, leaving the listener’s imagination to fill in the ‘missing’ parts of the lines. This textural extreme contrasts with the sudden unfolding of almost excessive rapidity and density that forms the work’s climax – perhaps a result of the ‘holding back’ of certain parts earlier in the piece – before a multiphonic interval of a twelfth repeatedly punctuates the coda, fixing the parts and their materials in a pensive balance.

Fragment No. 1 for string quartet was composed in memory of the composer’s friend and colleague David Huntley, and its poignant, wistful mood is emphasised by its exclusive use of harmonics, and a register that exists entirely above middle C. These facts do not however act as limitations on the work’s expressiveness, but rather demonstrate again Carter’s capacity for invention: the glacial textures of the opening give way to cursory flourishes, measured crossings of spiky bowed and plucked harmonics, and eventually impassioned, piled-up chords, before the piece’s conclusion of overlapping bell-like chords that fade successively away.

Fragment No.2 is another of Carter’s ‘tribute’ pieces, this time to the Arditti Quartet. Throughout the piece is a constant two-part counterpoint of long, slow arcing phrases based on a ‘structural polyrhythm’ – a Carter rhythmic device more often heard in orchestral or larger ensemble works, which stretches out the concept of polyrhythmic relationships to mark out the structure of an entire movement – except that here, as befits the work’s title, the structures are fragmentary, incomplete. What is perceived is a gradual coming together of these two lines (at first in the violin I and cello parts) and then a gradual moving apart (in violin II and viola) until the cycle is broken near the end of the work. On top of this background are sporadic and abrupt exclamations of varying length and character, until more violent interactions between violin and cello precipitate the dense and suggestive ending, leaving the piece still pregnant with potential.

In the Elegy (1946), here arranged for string quartet – the original version was written in 1939 for cello and piano, and the work has undergone several subsequent transformations – the listener is transported back to an earlier time and place in Carter’s output. This warmly sensitive work, composed in an elegant American tonal idiom, is less straightforward than it seems upon first hearing: it weaves its way through several effortless modulations, the modally-tinged melodies of the upper instruments colliding gently with the cello’s slowly rising and falling scales, before finally reaching its elusive tonal centre of C major only in the very last chord. While Elegy might seem a world away from the explorations of the Cello Sonata and other much later works, the melodic fingerprints and the conversational tone are undeniably Carter.

Stuart McRae, 2008
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