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Reviews: Elliott Carter: Figments and Fragments - Johannes Martens Ensemble

Reviews: 2

Site review by Polly Nomial September 23, 2008
Performance:   Sonics:  
The text for this review has been moved to the new site. You can read it here:

http://www.HRAudio.net/showmusic.php?title=5350#reviews

Site review by ramesh January 5, 2009
Performance:   Sonics:  
This American composer celebrated his hundredth birthday on Nov 28 2008. Nearly as extraordinary, this superb SACD encompasses works composed from 1939, with eight compositions postdating the composer's eightieth birthday. The major work in this compilation is the Cello Sonata of 1948, which, with the piano sonata of 1946, are considered Carter's first important works. In an interview in the December 4 'Boston Herald', Carter states, 'after a certain period in 1948 after my cello sonata [...], most of my pieces are not in traditional form [...], each piece has its own particular character, its own formation, presentation. People have been saying that my music has become much more transparent, and I suppose it has, since at one time it was much more complex.' This is borne out by the works which follow the opening Cello Sonata on this disc, which generally average five minutes' duration. The two 'Figments' are composed for the cello, the 'Enchanted Preludes' of 1988 for flute and cello, 'Scrivo in Vento' for flute, 'Gra' [ Polish for 'game' ] for clarinet, the 'Fragments' for string quartet, and 'Con Leggerezza Pensosa' [ dedicated to the writer Italo Calvino ], for clarinet, violin and cello.

Carter, much like his mentor, Charles Ives, cannot be easily slotted into any particular compositional school. In the 1940s, prior to Carter's breakthrough works, both Stravinsky and Schoenberg were active in America. Musical serialism was in the ascendancy in the American classical compositional establishment, to the extent that Schoenberg complained that many aspiring Hollywood composers signed up for one lesson in musical composition from him, so that they could claim on their CVs to have been his pupil. Copland composed his famously acerbic Piano Variations around 1937 before swerving into his immensely successful faux-Appalachian populism-- doubtless what failed vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin would laud as 'being a real American' were she ever to recognise Copland as a composer. However, Carter never really had a serial or atonal musical phase, nor did he ever feel the need to incorporate folk music into his works, notwithstanding composers as disparate as Copland, Bartok, Stravinsky and Britten. Instead of formulating grandiose gestures of pioneering new, improved harmonic idioms and languages, Carter seems to have set himself down a lifelong path of exploration in the realm of contrapuntal texture and instrumental interplay. Perhaps because of what was perceived to be his intellectualism, Carter has remarked more than once that in the 1950s to 1960s he was more appreciated in Western Europe.

As Stuart McRae's detailed liner notes for this release state, Carter's innovation of 'metric modulation' is a device to 'move seamlessly between different tempi while maintaining a consistent pulse in the music'. Carter often gives different instruments 'separate musical materials with which to play'. Unlike, say, the way which in a JS Bach instrumental concerto the same rhythmic or melodic germ swings from one instrument to the next, in the 'Enchanted Preludes' the flute often has music in a triple meter contrasting to the cello's quadruple rhythm, or the opening movement of the Cello Sonata juxtaposes the piano's henpecked clucking rhythm against the cello's sinuous, quasi-Rachmaninovian line.

Although in a work of music criticism it is customary to offer some appreciation of the quality of the musical performance, Carter's music, like most living classical composers, contains no extensive library of recorded performances. Most of the works on this disc have already appeared on a 1994 release [ BCD 9044 ] by the Bridge label. The Cello Sonata is an accepted modern repertory piece, also having been recorded by the cellist of the Arditti quartet with Ursula Oppens as pianist; it is also the only work on this disc which I have had the good fortune to experience in the concert hall.
The performance of the Cello Sonata on this SACD is as good as I have heard, mediated in no small measure by the warm and opulent sound of this DXD-recorded disc. The superb cellist and pianist bring out the humour and wit of the work's outer movements, qualities not often thought of as integral to no-compromises contemporary classical music. The heart of this work, the Adagio, is effectively contrasted in its intense neo-classical lyricism. In contrast, the Bridge CD, which was hailed on its release for its outstanding sound, sounds dryish and cool, even though the performance here is every bit as committed. This is a case where the richness of a state-of-the-art recording elevates the emotional impact of already fine musicianship.

An outstanding release of modern chamber music, especially for the musically curious who want to dip a toe out of their customary comfort zone.