Bridge Records has long supported the music of Elliott Carter, and this disc was their fourth completely dedicated to the composer. There's a healthy variety here, ranging from two solo pieces to a little ensemble work and a song cycle.
"Shard" for solo guitar (1997) is a three-minute piece which alternates furiously fast sections with moments more meditative, but never entirely complacent. It features all of Carter's characteristic tempo wizardy, but it has a zest in it that seems to link it to the flamenco tradition, regardless of whether the composer intended it. I find this piece not only engaging, but downright addictive, and it deserves a wide audience. David Starobin was the dedicatee, and he performs here.
"Shard" was soon integrated into "Luimen" for trumpet, trombone, vibraphone, mandolin, guitar & harp (1997), a unusual scoring that reminds one of the alto-tenor world of Boulez's "Le Marteau sans Maitre" or Takemitsu's "Ring"; indeed, it's amazing just how different Carter's music sounds here just because of the scoring, even if his actual technique remains the same. The performance by Speculum Musicae here is fine, but I prefer the recording by dedicatees the Nieuw Ensemble on a Naive disc.
"Tempo e Tempi" for soprano, oboe, clarinet, violin and cello (1999) is a setting of eight Italian poems by Montale, Ungaretti and Quasimodo. These are highly varied movements. Some feature only a couple of the instruments in the ensemble, others involve everyone but in the calm dialogues of late Carter, and still others are as furious as his 1960s work. Carter is always full of surprises here. There is striking melody here, e.g. the long viola solo in "Uno", while the last movement is eerie in its stasis; not a sound typical of this very busy composer. In some respects it may be seen as an update of the earlier song cycle "A Mirror on Which to Dwell", though somewhat less memorable.
The disc is rounded out with Carter's 8 Pieces for Four Timpani (1950-1966), a collection that seeks to get the maximum out of this very limited instrumentation. I suspect this work on disc will appeal mainly to percussionists. In concert, the virtuosity of the music may ensure a wide appeal, but without the visuals the pieces do sometimes come across as a plodding series of rhythmic experiments. It's something of a problem that here we have all eight, as Carter wanted no more than four performed at a time precisely so that the audience wouldn't feel overwhelmed.
The liner notes contain a very informative essay by Malcolm McDonald that describes the musical workings of the pieces in some depth. The booklet is a bit odd in that, while it contains the texts of "Tempo e Tempi" and translations of most poems, the Montale poems are left untranslated, with only a prose description of what Montale wrote about.
While often finely crafted and entertaining, none of these pieces is among Carter's best. Those who don't know the composer ought to start with the "Symphonia", Piano Concerto or String Quartets. Still, established fans of the grand old man of contemporary music will enjoy most of the material here.