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CD Review

Elliott Carter

Early Works

  • The Minotaur 1
  • Dust of Snow 2
  • The Rose Family 2
  • Piano Sonata 3
1 New York Chamber Symphony of the 92nd Street Y/Gerard Schwarz
2 Jan DeGaetani, mezzo-soprano
2 Gilbert Kalish, piano
3 Paul Jacobs, piano
Nonesuch 9 79248-2 61:57
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Before, on the way to After.

Carter wasn't always the High Priest of Awful Contemporary Music. Indeed, it took him some years to reach that position. He began writing music that sounded very much like the American composers of his time – Stravinskian neo-classic, Pistonian symphonic, Copland Americana. During the Forties' rediscovery of Ives, Carter also took part, composing pieces fairly similar in ambition and scope to William Schuman's orchestration of Ives' America variations. However, Carter never merely imitated, and he produced work of very high finish. He also showed a hankering to write for virtuosi – whether a virtuosic chorus, orchestra, chamber players, or soloists. However, something happened around 1950, the time of his 8 Etudes and a Fantasy. He began to become dissatisfied with the essentially Pistonian idiom he had mastered. Ives entered more and more into his thinking, opening up new technical possibilities, particularly the idea of simultaneity. Carter explored ways to achieve this through rather rigorous counterpoint (his neoclassic beginnings asserting themselves) and new rhythmic devices like "metrical modulation," which rationalized unusual tempo shifts. In doing so, Carter created an individual music, one which gave full play to both his intellect and his poetry.

People who have heard the later Carter may question that last term. All I mean by it is that expressive part of the music beyond what you get from analyzing the score. Certainly, despite the technical influence of Ives, Carter's music talks of different things than Ives' does. Ives is our musical Whitman – the composer who contains the American multitudes and who wants to give us back the complexity of our national lives. Ives didn't hesitate to include the musical everything – ragtime as well as Beethoven. Carter's music always strikes me as fairly well isolated from the vulgar crowd. I can't imagine him incorporating boogie-woogie or rock. He seems more interested in Ives' music from a technical remove, rather than in the culture that inspired Ives. But this is negative definition. What does Carter's music speak of? For me, it's the voice of the New England intellectual Brahmin (despite the fact that Carter was born in New York): patrician, witty, a pilgrim in the land of ideas. The image strikes me as apt. A pilgrim is not only at the service and the test of duty, but of a spiritual passion. There is no easy path to enlightenment, but enlightenment is the overriding good. If Ives is our musical Whitman, Carter seems to me our musical Thoreau – willing, even eager, for the sake of conscience, to travel the hard road. This, at any rate, is where Carter has ended up.

But he didn't start there, despite the case that people have made for the continuity of his output. The continuity is there, but it's at the level of Chomskian "deep structure." That is, I find it difficult to imagine the innocent ear connecting, say, The Defense of Corinth (or even the piano sonata) to the piano concerto. Nevertheless, the ingratiating neoclassical idiom to one side, all of the works on this CD have the characteristic busy-ness and polish of any of Carter's works, whatever the period.

The Minotaur, one of Carter's two ballets (the other, Pocahontas) and written for Balanchine but never choreographed by him, is part of a subgenre of American works around this time: the psychological drama in Greek mythic dress, popularized but not limited to Martha Graham. Undoubtedly, Barber's Médean Cave of the Heart ranks as the best-known of such scores. Hanson recorded Carter's suite from the ballet in a classic Mercury recording, until now the only account available. The full ballet contains at least six more minutes of not-negligible music. For me, these additions transformed a very good score to a great one. They gave the music a deeper context, much as the restored cuts do for Copland's Appalachian Spring. I would also give the palm to Schwarz's reading over Hanson's. The New York Chamber Symphony plays better and with better tone than the old Eastman-Rochester, and Schwarz draws crisper rhythms from his players. The score contains a great nervous excitement and psychological unease, closer to William Schuman than to Walter Piston's Apollonian balance, but without the hysteria Schuman's music occasionally indulges. I'll probably raise some eyebrows in both the Carter and the Barber camps (but for different reasons) when I say that I think this score every bit as good as Cave of the Heart. Occasionally, one gets a surprisingly close echo of Forties' Copland (for example, in the section describing Theseus's entry into the labyrinth), and Stravinsky's Apollo is never far away. However, Carter operates at the level of his influences. He competes successfully with them, particularly in an impressive fugue describing Theseus's adventures in the Labyrinth and his fight with the Minotaur. At any rate, the obvious echoes are about to disappear.

The two Frost songs – "Dust of Snow" and "The Rose Family" – come from a group of three. For some reason, Carter's setting of "The Line Gang" isn't included. They are exquisite miniatures, and both, interestingly enough, show Carter's fascination with two musical tangents going on at once, even in this small frame. The voice sings lovely, long melodies, while the piano bubbles along in highly independent rhythm. Incidentally, the complete set of Frost songs were at one time available on Unicorn LP RHS 353, performed on a splendid anthology of American music by Peter and Meriel Dickinson.

The piano sonata is probably one of the most ambitious pieces Carter ever wrote – which is saying something. There's a lot of Copland in it, particularly in the piano sonorities, but, by the end of the work, you're not thinking about Copland. More essentially, there's also a lot of late Beethoven. Carter builds his first movement on the principle of interruption – one idea constantly breaks in on another, as in the last movement of the Ninth or throughout the Missa solemnis. The sonata opens with a statement of grand chords (he marks the movement "maestoso"). Throughout the movement, these chords try to establish themselves, but give way to nervous scurrying ("scorrevole," a favorite Carter marking) or long, singing lines. The second movement, headed "andante," again begins with Copland sounds and harmonies and song, but quickly begins to veer away in its greater concern for polyphony and (once more) highly independent rhythmic lines. A remarkable passage in unisons and octaves follows which leads to a fugue bristling with cross-rhythms. Here, the independently rhythmic lines generate other rhythms by their interaction. The fugue ends haltingly, and gradually the andante singing returns, this time purged of its Copland habits. The song morphs into another idea of maestoso chords, which gradually peters out to a quiet finish. I may have made too much of Copland in talking about this piece. Certainly, Carter's piano sonata interests me far more than Copland's own, and one senses a new music about to come to being.

As I've said, Schwarz's Minotaur outdoes Hanson's. DeGaetani and Kalish have elegant fun with the Frost songs. Paul Jacobs, unfortunately, disappoints in the piano sonata. It's hard to say what goes wrong. The notes are there. He does a nice job of shaping the work. But it's all so tasteful – something for the faculty sherry party. To me, this is a big, bopping Romantic work, despite the surface idiom. Those opening chords should ring out like a call to arms. The second movement fugue should throw off sparks. Throughout Jacobs's performance, I couldn't shake the running commentary in my head, almost all of it on the order of "This needs more."

Since I've heard Nonesuch is about to disappear as a classical label (I do hope alarmists have exaggerated its imminent demise), this is one CD you shouldn't miss, if you love Classic Modern American music. You need to move fast. The sound is quite good.

Copyright © 2002, Steve Schwartz