Lauds and Lamentations – Music of Elliott Carter and Isang Yun (ECM New Series 1848/49)

Lauds and Lamentations
Music of Elliott Carter and Isang Yun

Heinz Holliger oboe, English horn
Thomas Zehetmair violin
Ruth Killius viola
Thomas Demenga cello
Recorded September 2001 and February 2002 at Radio Studio DRS, Zürich
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Elliott Carter is the Benjamin Button of contemporary music: the more he ages, the more youthful he seems to become. At the time of this writing, he’s still going strong at 102. That being said, his is not an endeavor to overcompensate for a fading mortality, but rather a deeper exploration into a key aesthetic of his entire output: possibility. What that possibility looks like depends entirely on the whim of the moment, the colors of scoring and performance that mark his oeuvre at all stages.

Elliott Carter (photo courtesy of The Arts Fuse)

The Oboe Quartet of 2001 is a quintessential example of Carter’s tightly wound exuberance. While distinctly “modern,” there is something downright fun about the piece. It is playful, inventive, and positively bursting with life. And who better than Heinz Holliger to act as its heliocenter? Here is a musician who not only plays the oboe as if it were a part of him, but who also brings a singular admiration for Carter to light in every measure. The quartet is a peanut gallery of moods, some meditative and others jarring, each more fascinating than the last. The final passages show especial and intensive concentration. After this 17-minute chunk of gravid whimsy, the 4 Lauds (1999/1984/2000/1999) for solo violin pat the cheeks of our comatose inner children into wakefulness. Each has its center—be it a note, an atmosphere, a statement, or a phrase—from which emanates a fresh start. A 6 Letter Letter (1996) for English horn in F scales a modest cliff, reaching at last with its final hand-crawl the horizontal plane it seeks. The tongue-in-cheek Figment (1994) for cello alone unfolds like a beautiful lie, for which its companion, Figment II: Remembering Mr. Ives (2001), provides gorgeous contrast with its lower microtonal vowels and high-pitched consonants.

Isang Yun (photo courtesy of Boosey & Hawkes)

The pairing of Carter with Korean dissident Isang Yun (1917-1995) is more than circumstantial. Theirs is an inexplicable sort of affinity. Where the former elicits winsome optimism, the latter drowns us in ceremony. Piri (1971) for solo oboe solo is a discipline in and of itself. Spurred by Holliger’s focused tone, it spins themes from the thinnest of fibers. This deeply internal sense of space and accumulation is expanded in Yun’s own Oboe Quartet of 1994, which skitters sideways like a crab on sand. Over three densely packed movements it starts in collective naivety before falling to its knees amid the slowed air raid sirens at its center. A potentially lucid finale is hinted at through a memorable trill shared between oboe and violin, only to crack under the pressure of earthbound agitations.

For the two oboe quartets featured on Lauds, we must thank Heinz Holliger, who asked both composers to write pieces for this neglected configuration, as yet “unchallenged” since Mozart. Both receive their world premiere recordings here and glisten with the golden seal of any benchmark achievement. The musicians on Lauds are all ideally suited to the material and its “linguistic” stumbling blocks. Thomases Zehetmair and Demenga (both ECM mainstays) and Ruth Killius (violist of the Zehetmair Quartett) round out the limitless talents of Holliger in a program that is sure to yield many new discoveries for years to come.

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