BCMG – Celebrating Carter

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), Birmingham Contemporary Music Group / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla

Elliott Carter (above)
Mosaic (2004)
Bariolage (1992)
Two Controversies and a Conversation (2010/11)
Two Thoughts about the Piano (2007)
Double Trio (2011)
Epigrams (2012)

Town Hall, Birmingham; Sunday 28 January 2018

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Little of Elliott Carter’s music was heard in Birmingham during his lifetime, but an account of the then recent song-cycle In Sleep, In Thunder remains vivid in the memory 35 years on. That was directed by Oliver Knussen, who was latterly assiduous in the scheduling and even commissioning of the composer with Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, which this afternoon devoted a whole programme to Carter and was conducted for the first time by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s current music director Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla.

A composer who not only lived to a great age but continued writing up until his death meant that BCMG had a sizable number of pieces from which to choose. It was an astute move to open with Mosaic, as this eventful piece is a paradigm for that ‘late late style’ Carter evolved in his 90s. Harp is the first among equals here, Carter having spoken of his desire to explore techniques developed by inter-war virtuoso Carlos Salzedo. Not that these are deployed for effect; indeed, this piece evinces an almost continuous ‘through line’ from which emerges a discourse as inventive as it is diverting – with an incitement to disciplined virtuosity that the musicians, not least Céline Saout, seized on with assurance. The harpist took centre stage for Bariolage, taking its cue from Rilke in what is a scintillating exploration of those techniques.

Nor is humour at a premium in this music. Two Controversies and a Conversation finds the piano at first mediating precariously between ensemble and percussion (first marimba, then woodblocks), before more balanced and equable discourse is made possible.

Carter’s earliest musical mentor, Charles Ives, would have been impressed by this refracted recollection of a concept he himself pursued in his Second String Quartet and while he might have been less convinced by the abstraction of Carter’s writing for piano, there can be little doubting the effectiveness of the latter’s Two Thoughts about the Piano. Complementary pieces too – the preoccupied and silence-riven progress of Intermittences countered by the linear velocity of Caténaires; Pierre-Laurent Aimard tackling both these pieces with his customary poise and precision.

Back in the early 1980s, Triple Duo was one of Carter’s most effervescent and entertaining works – its stealthy ingenuity posited in far more gnomic ways by Double Trio with its often impulsive if ultimately resigned interplay between violin, trombone and percussion as heard against trumpet, cello and piano.

Gražinytė-Tyla’s direction was at its most perceptive here, though it was left for Aimard, Alexandra Wood and Ulrich Heinen to take the platform for what was Carter’s final work. Epigrams consists of 12 refractory miniatures for piano trio (designed by the composer so that their cohesion would be assured however many were completed) – their salient gestures constantly though unpredictably recurring such that their diversity is never achieved at the expense of their unity, however hard-won this may seem.

If there was anything predictable here, it was the conviction and technical finesse of tonight’s performance, rounding off a programme as compact and absorbing as the music itself. Those yet to do so should investigate BCMG’s disc of Carter’s ‘late music’ as a matter of urgency.

For more information about Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, visit the ensemble’s website

Further listening

You can listen to the BCMG’s disc of Carter that Richard refers to on Spotify below:

Proms premieres – Birmingham Contemporary Music Group


Birmingham Contemporary Music Group

Proms premieres – Johannes Schöllhorn, Shiori Usui, Betsy Jolas and Joanna Lee
Ulrich Heinen (cello), Hilary Summers (contralto), Birmingham Contemporary Music Group / Franck Ollu (Proms Saturday Matinee 1)

BBC iPlayer link


What’s the story behind the pieces?

Four Proms premieres in one concert here, given by the ever-enterprising Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. They begin with Johannes Schöllhorn’s arrangements of three Boulez Notations, plus a transcription for ensemble of a fragment from each of the thirteen originals – one bar from each, in fact! The arrangements are Notations 2, 11 & 10, while the collage is La treizième.

Shiori Usui’s piece has an extremely macabre background, and is not for the faint-hearted! Ophiocordyceps unilateralis s.l. is a nasty little fungus – as in an infectious fungus that completely eats up the ants that are unfortunate enough to capture it. Usui was struck by an image of one in a nature magazine, and this gave her the sounds she wanted to create.

Betsy Jolas, meanwhile, says of Wanderlied in an onstage interview that “I was trying to make the listeners imagine an old woman going from town to town as a storyteller”. The old woman in this case is a cello, accompanied by the instrumental ensemble – and we are warned of a ‘surprise’ at the end.

Finally Joanna Lee’s Hammer of Solitude, for singer and ensemble. This was written with Boulez in mind, and when she looked at individual movement titles of his she was taken to writing about the poet and novelist Sylvia Plath, and her life, using text by Rory Malarkey. This is a bleak piece indeed, for Lee chooses to devote the last of the three songs to Plath’s suicide.

Did you know?

The Birmingham Contemporary Music Group has premiered over 160 works in its 27-year existence. It was born from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 1987.

Initial verdict

Johannes SchöllhornNotations 2, 11 & 10; La treizième


An energetic set of pieces, benefiting from incredibly well drilled performances. With sharp phrases, these brief thoughts are distilled into really short paragraphs, with only the briefest period of relaxation. There is a wonderful rumble on the bass drum to finish La treizième, which is a great concept if rather difficult to follow!

Shiori Usui Ophiocordyceps unilateralis s.l.


Drawing by Fumio Obata

Usui has certainly picked a grisly but rather captivating subject for a new composition, and given the scenario the music is very vivid – uncomfortably so in fact!

There is a striking, bluesy clarinet solo midway through, but, but by this time the ant appears to be giving up the ghost.

Then we hear some very ominous loud brass with a thumping bass drum, before macabre sounds signal the beginning of the end for the ant. Usui captures the forest and its clicks and murmurs with some imaginative scoring, while also conveying the really grotesque side of Mother Nature.

Betsy JolasWanderlied (from 21:28)


The cello feels restless from the beginning of this piece, while the rest of the ensemble appear to be painting the picture of a wider expanse, through which the old woman is travelling.

Not surprisingly the old woman takes the lead in the conversation throughout, and is very expressive. Its tone of speech is very much in the human range

The ‘surprise’ appears to be a form of hidden track, where the audience think the music has stopped, and begin to applaud, and then find that it hasn’t.

Joanna LeeHammer of Solitude


The first song, Hammer Alone In The House, features a very distinctive half spoken / half sung vocal from the alto, above some atmospheric orchestral colouring. The Love Song has a little more tenderness, but The Suicide is much less forgiving. It is surely very difficult to portray such a bleak and decisive moment in music, but Lee does so powerfully.

Second hearing


Where can I hear more?

Right here! Embedded are sound clips for each composer’s work:

Johannes Schöllhorn

Shiori Usui

Betsy Jolas

Joanna Lee