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.

Thomas Demenga plays Bach/Carter (ECM New Series 1391)

Thomas Demenga
plays works of J. S. Bach and Elliott Carter

Thomas Demenga cello
Hansheinz Schneeberger violin
Philippe Racine flute
Ernesto Molinari clarinet
Paul Cleemann piano
Gerhard Huber percussion
Jürg Wyttenbach conductor
Recorded October 1988 and April 1989, Zürich
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

In this, the first of Thomas Demenga’s Bach cycle for ECM, the ever-adventurous cellist pairs one suite of the Baroque master with the works of a master of a rather different sort: the American composer Elliott Carter.

We begin with Bach’s Suite Nr. 3 in C-Dur für Violoncello solo, BWV 1009, a crowning jewel in solo instrumental literature. The Prelude glows with an improvisatory spirit, which Demenga captures with his usual tasteful flair. The Allemande dances lithely through a hall of contrapuntal bliss, while the Courante skips and slides like an exuberant child without a care in the world, leading us into a lilting Sarabande. The double Bourée is one of the most beloved moments in the Bach suites and blurs here with vivacious speed. The closing Gigue weaves is mercurial song with expert care, leaving us fully prepared for the imminent journey through the world of Carter.

Esprit rude, Esprit doux (1983) for flute and clarinet is a playful romp in distorted fields, where unfinished phrases grow in place of flowers and the wind blows only erratically. Enchanted Preludes (1988) for flute and cello trills and plucks its unsteady way through a wide open sea. Riconoscenza per Goffredo Petrassi (1984) for solo violin, now part of the Four Lauds, is as robust and neoclassical as the music of the Italian composer to whom it is dedicated. But the real treat here is the 1983 Triple Duo, a more formidable and complex work than the rest combined, for combine them it does, and then some. Scored for three duos—comprised of flute/clarinet, piano/percussion, and violin/cello—this piece is classic Carter. Its wily acrobatics twist and twirl with the grace of an intoxicated gymnast. The effect is like the striations of earth visible in an archaeological dig: what appears to be a random zigzag of tones and materials takes on a staggering unity in the larger context of time. One motif is quickly usurped by another, even as a third has already come and gone. This game of hide-and-seek continues for twenty minutes, ending as uncertainly as it began. As with much of Carter’s prolific output, we are left with more questions than answers, yet we never feel cheated, given as we are a veritable stockpile of musical information to sift through to our great delight.

The recording here is meticulous as always. The Bach is awash with warm reverb and sounds spectacular, while the Carter invites the listener with a more pressing immediacy. One can speak the world of Bach, but Carter’s music is surely not to be overlooked. Its fluidity and inextinguishable verve always make for a refreshing experience. Like the most intuitive sketches, it just manages to hold its shape in a jumble of possibilities. Which brings us back to Bach. “What’s the connection?” we might ask. Rather than attempt a feeble answer, I leave you with the words of Heinz Holliger, whose open letter says it far better than I ever could:

Although BA and CA coexist so peacefully beside each other in the alphabet, I am afraid that when the first jagged flashes of flute and clarinet rend the serene C major skies of Bach’s Gigue, your hand will rush to switch off the record player. I hope my plea does not come too late to stop this from happening. It would be such a shame if one fateful turn of the knob were to close off the new and fascinating sound-world just opened to you by those first flashes. Lie back and relax, listen, look, feel and remember the future; try to foresee the past. Let Zeus throw down from the new Olympus those shattering bolts of sound. Let the purifying spiritual storm (not just Esprit rude, Esprit doux) rage around you. You will be richly rewarded.

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Elliott Carter/Paul Griffiths: What Next? (ECM New Series 1817)


Elliott Carter
What Next?

Valdine Anderson soprano
Dean Elzinga baritone
Sarah Leonard soprano
William Joyner tenor
Hilary Summers contralto
Emanuel Hoogeveen boy alto
Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra
Peter Eötvös conductor
Recorded September 9, 2000, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam (What Next?)
Recording Engineer: Ron Ford
September 2001, MCO Studio 5, Hilversum (Asko Concerto)
Recording Engineer: Frans Meyer
Co-production of ECM Records/VARA Radio

“Wherever we go, words have been there first.”

Imagine you are driving along a busy metropolitan street. On the passenger seat is your latest score. Having made some hasty but crucial changes just in time for the premier performance, you floor the gas pedal in a paroxysm of anticipation. Your hands itch for the baton. As fate would have it, however, your life compresses into a single dot of light. When you come to, you awaken to the reality of a near-fatal crash. Score pages rain around you, many burnt to mere fragments of their former selves. You scramble to gather them into something coherent, stitching them together with nothing but your own determination. Dash a little Sartre on this scene, stage it, then pull the existential rug out from under it, and you begin to approximate the feeling of What Next?, a one-act opera (Elliott Carter’s first and only after decades of false starts) inspired by the brilliant 1971 Jacques Tati film Trafic.

The proceedings ignite in a metallic whirlwind of sound: the traffic accident as afterthought, recreated in fragments of trauma’s own trauma. Voices enter as if hewn in shards of glass, dying in reverse to their original shape. “Starts are always an embarrassment to us / for we are creatures of eternity / and each new beginning is only a new illusion.” So says Zen, one of six survivors working their way through the wreckage. Rounding out the sextet are Mama, her son (indecisively named “Harry or Larry”), his wife-to-be Rose, and the mysterious swath of a character known as Kid. As Mama’s former husband, Zen knows a thing or two about life’s little tragedies and makes no qualms about showing it. His tongue-in-cheek self-awareness is taken up by Rose, the natural born performer, who begins her aria as if addressing the metaphysical orchestra: “Più andante, maestro.” And while the adults monopolize most of the fun working through to their ends, I find Kid to be more consistently intriguing. His language cuts through the haze of parental distanciation, holding fast to gut reactions in the face of studied response. Hearing him, I cannot help but think of the frog in Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen: direct and ever the voice of playful reason (it is perhaps no coincidence that Kid, too, has the final word). Mama tries to console him, shielding him from the painful reality that drapes their muddling philosophy like a wet blanket. “Think of this as a game,” she insists, for indeed their predicament is nothing but. The opera’s occasional lyrical moments—such as the ravaging solo “Stella cannot explain”—are all the more heightened for the jumble of their periphery. Conversely, certain moments are parodically hilarious, as when Rose and Harry or Larry claim to have heard something, to which Zen quips, “Unless the sound of one hand,” followed by a blatant percussive clap. Despite a penchant for self-indulgent rhetoric, Zen does break out now and then with solemn wisdom. “Whose eyes can we use to see what we are?” he interjects as the survivors grope for a plan of action. Ironic, to be sure, for action is one thing this opera clearly lacks. Toward the end, the potential wedded bliss of Rose and Harry or Larry crumbles before our very eyes, even as we question the soundness of its foundations; the significance of the accident dissolves as everyone retreats into their own anger; and personal foibles reign supreme over the threat of the almighty superstructure. Contrary to what the unfinished ending might imply, there is nothing elliptical about What Next?, having by now forgotten its own beginnings.

What Next? is nothing without its text, penned from the steady hand of Paul Griffiths, whose reprinted diary in the liner notes allows us a rare glimpse into the dramaturgy therein. Librettists are the drummers of the operatic world: their rhythm-keeping is taken for granted. Yet one can hardly ignore the words here, as they are the bones and the flesh of the opera, while the orchestra wafts like afterthoughts in response to each precious cell of exposition. Put simply: the words are affect, the music is effect. Griffiths works both in a linguistic see-saw of pathos and obscurity, placing us squarely at the fulcrum throughout.

Composed at the cusp of his ninetieth year, Carter’s opera explodes with the vitality of one in his ninth. The textures are akin to a family reunion, disjointed and confusing while also making a bizarre sort of sense through some hidden genetic continuity. Solo voices are often bolstered by wordless syllables from supporting characters in a scat-like dribble, so that no one is ever alone, bound by the cruel aftermath in which the cast finds (or loses?) itself.

The Asko Concerto provides a constellatory coda. This instrumental runaround of fiery spirit partners well with What Next? It doesn’t so much pick up where the latter left off as it picks us up where we have been dropped in the wake of Kid’s half-utterance. In a way, it feels like a programmatic speculation of the action that could have been, breathing like an asthmatic in recovery.

Carter’s music is tirelessly multi-dimensional and demands an open and patient ear. I cannot help but think that these two pieces were dashed out in a frenzy of creative impulses, even if both strive for practiced cohesion in the face of their own instability. Regardless of whether or not this disc can be called “enjoyable,” it never fails to fascinate, frustrate, and stimulate with its surprises and unflinching attitudes toward mortality.