Bridge Records continues its extraordinary survey of the music of Elliott Carter with a selection that covers entire career, from 1938 (when he was just turning 30) to his 101st birthday. The centerpiece of the program is the Piano Concerto of 1964-65, a complex masterpiece from Carter’s heroic period. The concerto has been recorded four times previously, and one might be tempted to react to yet another one with a shrug. But one would be wrong. Soloist Charles Rosen and former Juilliard Quartet violinist Joel Smirnoff, here conducting the Basel Sinfonietta, deliver a surprisingly intimate, even romantic account that reveals another side to a piece that David Schiff described as an exploration of “the tragic possibilities of alienation on a visionary scale.” Bridge producer David Starobin said to me not long ago, “This is not a modern music performance,” which I think sums it up. It’s exquisite.
For the rest, Steve Beck completes the recorded catalog of Carter’s piano music with five of the composer’s late miniatures. (I especially liked his account of the rapid-fire Catenaires, which strikes me as fleeter and less punchy than Ursula Oppens’.) Tony Arnold sings two early songs in Carter’s own masterful orchestrations from 1979, and, in a rare treat, Rosalind Rees, soprano, and David Starobin, guitar, start off the proceedings with “Tell Me Where is Fancy Bred,” a faux-Elizabethan setting of Shakespeare that Carter wrote in 1938 for Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre of the Air.
The final track is the premiere recording of Nine by Five, subtitled Wind Quintet No. 2, written in 2009. It takes its title from the fact that four of the five players (the horn is the exception), double on higher and lower instruments at various points in the work. Despite its late vintage, it feels like a return to the Carter of the 1970s, with its extremes of range and dynamics, and it is one of the most attractive, colorful scores from the composer’s final years. The reading by the Slovenian group Slowind might not be as exciting or extroverted as the premiere performance I heard in New York in 2010 (or maybe I was just keyed up that night), but it’s well-balanced and taut, and it will do nicely. The piece is an instant favorite.
P.S. The reaction to the announcement of this release was lukewarm over at Good Musicc Guide, given that most of the pieces may be thought of as minor, and there's a lot more of Carter's late work that still needs to be recorded, but I have to say this is a fine recording in terms of the performances and the sound quality. The early songs may not be up to Carter's later standards, though Schiff says "Voyage" is Carter's first real masterpiece, and I would rather have them than not, if only for the sake of completeness. And two of the piano Tributes are first recodings, though you'd never know it from the liner notes.