Sept/Oct 1999

m a k i n g   t i m e


with Don Mager


Carter, Elliott. 5th. String Quartet, 90+, Sonata for Cello and Piano, Figment for Cello alone, Duo for Violin and Piano, Fragment for String Quartet. Ursala Oppens, Piano and the Arditti String Quartet. Auvidis M) 782091. 1998.

From time to time the fortunate music listener, like the fortunate reader of poetry, encounters a work whose challenge and seduction engage her or him so intently that the ability to listen (or to read) irreparably veers and entire new repertories of listening (or reading) are at hand that formerly were insurmountable.

One of my indelible musical memories is from high school in the late 50s. Elliott Carter's Second String Quartet was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and issued on record by the Julliard Quartet. I scrimped the money together and bought it-sight unheard as it were-and no real introduction to Carter. I have no idea how many times I listened to that record (I still have it), but within a week after purchase I was so shaken by it that I got a good friend to come over after school to hear it with me. We had worked our way together through some Roy Harris symphonies and the Ives Concord Sonata, being the only kids we knew interested in such things.

Having already been ravished by the Debussy and Sibelius quartets and then the Beethoven middle set, I was an open target for the string textures and sonorities that Carter served up. What shocked me into a new dominion of listening, however, was the narrative of the music-the way the movements connected-so different from the contrast and climax structures of earlier music. The dazzle of rhythmic design, not so much a road that marks out the time over which the music happens, but rather the utter making that is the music's time, also grabbed my attention.

I started buying the little available Carter as quickly as I could, both prior and post 1959 works. The Sonata for flute, oboe, cello and harpsichord (1952) had wonderful sonorities and haunted my mind for a long time; the Double Concerto for harpsichord and piano with two chamber orchestras (1961), on the other hand, was one of the gristliest works I have battled. I listened to it for years, usually getting lost in its dense textures, often feeling asphyxiated. Eventually I made my peace with it, but it never won me to it with affection, only dogged loyalty.

The Third String Quartet (1971) seemed close to the Double Concerto and I stopped buying Carter having discovered new aural realms to explore. In fact, I sort of set him aside with the feeling that he'd lost the brilliance that fused passionate ideas with riveting aural universes, that he was spinning out ideas on a strictly academic level, that he had settled into "a style."

At a much later date, I filled in gaps in my Carter collection, but basically saw his late works as minor.

In 1998, the man turned ninety and the Arditti String Quartet celebrated with this disc. There is wonderful stuff here played with such elan and jouissance that I have been swept back to that halcyon Carter year of the Second Quartet. Two earlier works give ballast and perspective to the set, the Cello Sonata and the Duo. The Cello Sonata has been recorded a number of times and has entered the graduate school repertoire as a not infrequent recital piece. Rohan de Saram and Ursala Oppens give it a masterful reading; one could not wish better. Not only does it wear its fifty years with considerable elegance; under their expert fingers, it comes off as simultaneously fresh and classic. One could imagine a performance coupling it with one of the Bach Cello Sonatas and the last of the Beethoven on a single disc.

However, it is the recent works that make this disc mandatory listening. 90+ and Figment are superb explorations of their respective instrumental timbres, and although rigorously controlled by stringent design, they sound improvisational, light and unencumbered by anything more than their zest to be music.

But The 5th. String Quartet is the disc's marvel without question.

A man almost ninety, here, reveals once again his fullest imaginative powers-which indeed are so considerable; one finds peers hard to spot. The liner notes tell us that the work is laid out in twelve connected section, an introduction, six developed movements, separated by five interludes. The interludes are described as "tuning up" material in which the four instruments independent of on another seem to be foreshadowing or recalling snippets from the formal movements, whereas the six movements treat the four instruments as an ensemble.

So much for design.

What one hears-my ear in any case-is a broad plateau of wonderful sound that thickens or thins its textures and momentum in an extended periodicity of inhalation and exhalation. When the textures thicken, they do so not only because the four instruments join in complex chordal and counterpointed structures, but because the rhythmic drive of each movement is so dynamic, propelling and emphatically distinct from other sections of the word.

When the texture thins and the work breathes out, as it were, there is a dissipation of energy that while it relaxes seems simultaneously to be re-gathering its forces.

There has been a sort of debate of late, especially since the deaths of Copeland and Cage, as to who is the "grand old man" of American music, Elliott Carter or Lou Harrison-a debate basically about east versus west coasts. Whatever your current position, listen to The 5th. Quartet before you cast your final vote. This late Carter is great stuff, neither stiff nor stuffy. Don't sell him short yet as I almost did. Based on this disc, I have revised my entire perception of him.


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