Composer Elliott Carter can truly claim the title of living legend. The two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, mentored as a youth by Charles Ives, is not only being honoured in the United States and Europe with centenary concerts of his work, but he has actually been able to make brief but triumphal appearances at some of these celebrations. The New York Times reported that, during a five-day Carter festival in July at Tanglewood, organized by conductor and longtime Carter champion James Levine, audiences were ‘shouting as if they were at a rock concert when Mr. Carter took his curtain calls’ - a particularly impressive response given that Carter has long been considered a purveyor of “difficult music”. The centenary events culminated on December 11 at Carnegie Hall, on the evening of Carter’s 100th birthday, with a premiere of a new piece, to be performed by the Boston Symphony.
This four-disc retrospective documents some of Carter’s most essential works, recorded for Nonesuch between 1968 and 1985. As liner note writer Paul Griffiths explains, Nonesuch, then helmed by creative director Teresa Sterne, ‘played a conspicuous role in carrying his music to a wide audience… bringing him the acclaim that encouraged him to go on, with undiminished vigor, into a ‘late period’ that has lasted more than thirty years. Nonesuch was not only the first label to give Carter’s music international distribution and continuing support, it also placed his work in an appropriate context of discovery and adventure.’
Carter, who the New Yorker’s Alex Ross has called ‘a giant of American Modernism’, has said he considered ‘change, process, evolution as music’s prime factor.’ Time was a constant obsession; he experimented boldly with tempo and often looked beyond traditional Western sources for inspiration. This compilation includes convention-defying, breakthrough pieces like Carter’s Cello Sonata and String Quartet No. 1, ‘a large experiment in polyrhythms of all kinds’, Carter has said, which he wrote while spending a soul searching year in Arizona’s Sonora Desert. Carter demanded as much from the intrepid listeners who embraced his rhythmically and theoretically complex work as from the musicians who played it. He was often a polarizing figure, who provoked and confounded as many as he influenced and encouraged. But, as the Los Angeles Times recently noted, there was always something deeper to be found below the daunting, analytical surface: ‘Carter's music is mathematically impressive. He works with massive numbers of sketches and charts and graphs. But …the core of the music is dramatic. Each piece has a poetic soul.’
‘One of America's most distinguished creative artists in any field.’ Aaron Copland
‘As we salute Carter, we are hailing a composer who has always been his own man, and whose music is some of the most remarkable and enduring of our time.’ Guardian
15th February 2009
“This four-disc set spans Elliott Carter's 20 years with this label, with performances from the 1970s and 1980s by some of his best interpreters, among them James Levine and the Chicago SO in Variations for Orchestra (1955) the London Sinfonietta and tenor Maryn Hill, conducted by Oliver Knussen in In Sleep, In Thunder (1981), and the Fires of London in Triple Duo (1982). Among the chamber works two string quartets, the Piano Sonata (1945) and the Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello & Harpsichord stand out. Critic/librettist Paul Griffiths, cellist Fred Sherry and others have contributed concise booklet essays. Covetable and historic.”
20th February 2009
“A whole clutch of outstanding performances, going chronologically from Carter's 1946 Piano Sonata, played wonderfully by Paul Jacobs, to the 1982 Triple Duo, commissioned for Peter Maxwell Davies's performing group The Fires of London, and including the 1947 ballet The Minotaur, the sonatas for cello and for flute, oboe, cello and harpsichord, the first two string quartets, the piano piece Night Fantasies (another terrific Jacobs performance) and the Robert Lowell song cycle In Sleep, in Thunder. There's also a "guest" account of the Variations for orchestra, conducted by James Levine, which originally appeared on Deutsche Grammophon. Just why that has been included is unclear, though it's welcome nevertheless.”
“Central to these performances is Paul Jacobs, who, with Charles Rosen, confirmed that Carter's piano-writing has an expressive eloquence to match its intellectual brilliance. As a harpsichordist, Jacobs is unfailingly lucid in the deft play on Baroque stylisms of the Sonata for flute, oboe, cello and harpsichord; and his partnership with Gilbert Kalish in the epic Double Concerto brings a tensile energy yet to be equalled... Nor has the Composers Quartet been outdone in making the magisterial First Quartet so inclusive an experience, though the vehemence of its successor undersells the music's acerbic humour. Carter devotees will find this a mandatory purchase.”
8th March 2009
“Among tributes to the centenarian master, few are as nicely judged as this set of recordings made for Nonesuch, plus one licensed by DG (Variations for Orchestra) to round out the picture of his development into his middle years, when his innovatory approach was at its most reckless and volatile.”
Click on any of the works listed above for alternative recordings.