The American composer Eliott Carter (b. 1908) celebrated his 100th birthday this past December. In his youth, Carter knew Charles Ives, who predicted great things for the young man. In his modernistic, difficult and bristling scores written over a period of 60 years, Carter has fulfilled Ives's hopes. Carter has composed actively well into his 90s and has achieved a flourishing in his old age. In this respect he is similar to another figure in American music, the much less well-known Leo Ornstein (1893 -- 2002) who continued composing in obscurity well into his 90s.
To celebrate Carter's 100th birthday, Naxos released two CDs of his music in 2008 as part of its "American Classics" series. The first CD consisted of Carter's first and fifth string quartets, while this CD, released on his birthday, December 11, 2008, includes 10 varied works for solo instruments, small ensembles, and chamber orchestra. The music dates from 1988, when Carter was 80, to 2005, when he was 97. The highly-regarded New Music Concerts Ensemble of Toronto under its director Robert Aitken introduce the listener to this difficult music. Aitken has been a long time friend of Carter and a champion of his music. In this CD he also performs as a flutist.
Of the ten works presented, the two most recent works are the most substantial in terms of length and instrumentation. Carter's "Mosaic" dates from 2005. It is scored "for solo harp and seven instruments". This work features virtuosic writing for the harp, performed here by Toronto harpist Erica Goodman. The music includes alternating fragmentary passages for the harp and the remaining instruments, flute, oboe, clarinet, violin, viola, cello, and bass. The climax of the work is a lengthy passage of glissandos and arpeggios for the harp. The work features sudden changes in mood and timbre but manages to create a sense of unity
The other extended work is "Dialogues", composed in 2004 and scored for piano and a chamber orchestra of eighteen instruments. David Swan of Toronto performs the difficult piano part. This work is almost a chamber concerto in a single movement in which the piano writing is juxtaposed against the orchestral ensemble or against individual instruments. As in traditional concertos, at times the pianist and orchestra seem to duel against each other while at other moments they play in unity. The work grows out of a small, short rhythmic theme and goes through many moods, from virtuosic and flamboyant to quietly reflective.
Several works on this CD were composed for individual instruments. These works have contrapuntal feel, as Carter makes full use of the range and varied tonal quality of each instrument, giving the sense of multiple voices. Carter wrote "Srivo in Vento" for Aitken in 2001, based on a poem of Petrarch. This work contrasts the low, breathy tones of the flute with its piercing upper register, capturing the contrasts found in Petrarch's poem. The short works "Gra" (1993) and "Steep Steps" (2001) were written for clarinet and bass clarinet. Here as well, Carter emphasizes the range of the instruments' registers, as Carter takes short, fragmentary phrases and develops them as the music moves back in forth between the deep voice of the clarinet and its upper ranges.
Besides these three works for solo winds, this CD includes four works for solo strings. "Figment No. 1" (1994) and "Figment No. 2" (2001) are for solo cello, played by David Hetherington. In their multiple voices, these modernistic works reminded me of Bach's cello suites. The 1994 work develops multiple musical moods and figures from a single idea while the second "Figment" is subtitled "Remembering Mr. Ives" and quotes themes from Carter's great mentor.
The two works on the CD for solo violin, "Riconoscenza per Goffredo Petrassi" (1984) and "Rhapsodic Musings" (1999)are played by Fujiko Imajishi. Written for the Italian composer Petrassi. the former work contrasts piercingly high figures in the violin, with slower passages in its lower register and with pizzacato playing. Carter composed the latter work for Robert Mann of the Juilliard String Quartet. This work of just over three minutes is highly intense and virtuosic, filled with double stops and contrasting musical themes which, Carter writes, mirror the human and artistic qualities of Robert Mann.
The earliest work on this CD, "Enchanted Preludes" (1988)
is scored for flute and cello. Robert Aitken and David Hetherington combine on this work which showcases the differences between the two instruments, much as the solo works focused on the different qualities of each individual instrument. The work is based upon the text of a poem by the American poet Wallace Stevens -- Carter is a learned individual quite beyond his compositional accomplishments -- in which Stevens wrote: "Time is the hooded enemy,/The inimical music, the enchanted space/In which the enchanted preludes have their place."
This CD also includes a bonus DVD featuring an interview between Carter and Aitken and live performances of "Mosaic" -- filmed in a way which captures the shifting quality of the score -- and "Dialogues" which complement the readings on the CD. Adventurous listeners wanting to explore the works of this great modern American composer will enjoy this CD.