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CARTER: Sonata for Cello and Piano. Figment Nos. 1 & 2. Enchanted Preludes. Scrivo in Vento. Gra. Con leggerezza pensosa. Fragments Nos. 1 & 2. Elegy.
Johannes Martens Ensemble.
2L 2L54SACD (DDD) TT: 64:29.
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A quick tour of Carter's chamber music, relatively early to late. In December, Elliott Carter will reach his hundredth birthday. As far as I know, he still composes. He began as a pupil of Nadia Boulanger and Walter Piston and wrote music typical of the American neoclassicism of the academic northeast: Harold Shapero, Irving Fine, David Diamond, and Piston himself. In the late Forties, he began to change. As he put it, his model shifted from Bach to Beethoven. Probably more important was his contact with Charles Ives, dating from the Twenties, which also may have strengthened his attraction to Beethoven.

The cello sonata (1948) is one of the first compositions to show that shift, although there's still plenty of neoclassicism in it. I consider it one of his greatest works, big and visionary, and where the technical innovations don't overwhelm the emotional content. The large technical concerns of it have occupied Carter to this day. In Carter's neo-classical work, the separate lines fit together in a most satisfying way, like the click on the lid of a well-made box, to paraphrase Yeats. In the cello sonata and in his subsequent, Carter accentuates the independence of the lines. The first movement begins with the piano ticking along steadily, while the cello sings long, insinuating lines which never correspond to the piano's ticks. The clock beats, and life goes on to its own rhythm. At the end, the instruments switch roles, and the movement finishes with a lone note from the cello. This leads to a scherzo, jazzy and playful, which in turn leads to the slow movement, where Carter comes up with his famous "metrical modulation." The technical detail matters less than the emotional journey. In fact, I doubt most listeners would catch the points where this occurs, at least without a score. The movement sings majestically, its notes somewhat severely separated into long and very short. The very short notes, reversing custom, represent an increase of tension, rather than its release -- like the tiny clicks you feel as you wind up a watch. Again, the movement ends on a lone note of the cello. The finale, a rather Stravinskian allegro (with more metrical modulations), really moves, recalling earlier ideas along the way. Toward the end, you get a return of the opening ticking-vs.-free-flow of the first movement, and again the movement winds down to the cello all by itself. I've known and loved this work for forty years, but it remains a bit of a mystery to me -- not musically, but of the psychological neighborhood it inhabits, something like the Debussy in that regard. I can't think of another American cello sonata so mature in its emotional thinking as this one. It impresses me as having been written by a real Mensch.

Figment for cello alone nevertheless exhibits Carter's fondness for conversation as a metaphor of musical discourse. In this case, the cello engages in dialogue with itself, as long singing lines get interrupted with short blasts. Figment No. 2, subtitled "Remembering Mr. Ives" and also for solo cello, I like better. It has momentary quotes from Ives's Concord Sonata and Hallowe'en, but even better it evokes the world of Ives -- its hymns and its bubbling energy -- through relatively simple and very touching means.

I've got nothing against the Enchanted Preludes for cello and flute, Scrivo in Vento ("written on the wind") for solo flute, or Gra ("game") for solo clarinet (dedicated to Lutoslawski), but they really are the same kind of piece and probably shouldn't have all been programmed on the same CD. Nevertheless, Scrivo in Vento stands out for me for its qualities of serenity and the tightness of its construction.

Con Leggerezza Pensosa: Ommagio a Italo Calvino ("with the lightness of thoughtfulness: homage to Italo Calvino") for clarinet, violin, and cello shows Carter's characteristic separation of parts, but it all seems to hang together nevertheless. Perhaps despite Carter's intent, it also strikes me as incredibly sad, although I can't tell you why.

The two Fragments for string quartet live up to their title, in that they seem to be sketches for something larger. The musicians play them without a break. The first relentlessly stresses the strings in their high register. The second has lines approaching each other in pitch, separating, and coming together again. For me, neither is all that compelling.

The Elegy for cello and piano comes from 1946. Carter arranged it for strings in 1952, the version heard here -- an elegant, gorgeous bit of neoclassicism.

It should come as no surprise that this is a Norwegian production or that all the performers reside in Norway. Europe plays Carter's music far more often than the United States does. Indeed, a good portion of Carter's American performances come from the academy. However, two staunch American Carterites, Charles Rosen and Fred Sherry, get partial credit for helping with the music. Whatever their input, the result is a reading that emphasizes music, rather than technique. I did not listen to this disc in SACD, but the normal stereo is fine, if not spectacular. The sonic image is a bit small-scale, but that doesn't hurt this kind of chamber music, heavily slanted to solo instruments. My only criticism is that Johannes Martens, the cellist and the leader of the ensemble, has a lighter tone than Bernard Greenhouse, the cellist who introduced me to the Carter sonata. On the other hand, he seems to understand the music better, as well he should after sixty years. For that matter, as well we should.

S.G.S. (September 2008)