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:

BBC Proms – BBC Singers & Ensemble Intercontemporain: Boulez, Elliott Carter & Bartók

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Baldur Brönnimann conducts the Ensemble Intercontemporain at the BBC Proms on Friday 2 September, in a Prom also featuring violinist Jeanne-Marie Conquer, IRCAM computer music artists Andrew Gerzo, Carlo Laurenzi and Jérémie Henrot, and the BBC Singers. (c) Chris Christodolou

Prom 65; Royal Albert Hall, Friday 2 September 2016

Bartók Three Village Scenes (1926); Boulez Anthèmes 2 (1997); Carter Penthode (1985); Boulez Cummings ist der Dichter (1970)

Listen on the BBC iPlayer here

Tonight’s late Prom suggested a certain nostalgic element in that the composers performed were at the forefront of these concerts from the late-1960s to the early 1990s, since when the evolution of contemporary music has increasingly become divorced from notions of progress.

Not least in the case of the Three Village Scenes that Bartók wrote in response to a hearing of Stravinsky’s Les noces, and that essentially freed his music from any vestige of late-romantic rhetoric. Not heard at the Proms for over three decades, these concise pieces alive with vitality and (in the second of them) pathos responded well to the poise and precision accorded by the Ensemble Intercontemporain (who gave this piece with Pierre Boulez in 1974 and ’79) – with the BBC Singers conveying the abrasiveness and humour of the vocal writing in like measure.

Although among his late works, Boulez’s Anthèmes 2 looks back via a brief solo predecessor to the Stravinsky memorial tribute a quarter-century earlier. Less encompassing in its musical scope than his other electro acoustic pieces, it brings to a head Boulez’s preoccupation with a cumulative s verse-and-refrain format unfolding as continuous variations in sound and space. Ably as the three IRCAM engineers facilitated this latter, it was the playing of Jeanne-Marie Conquer (below) – a world-class soloist if she chose to be – which took centre stage in every respect.

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A rather different side of Boulez’s composing was evident with Cummings ist der Dichter – a work which, for all that its title came about by accident, represents an oasis of conviction from an era beset by creative uncertainty. How much of this is due to harmonic enrichment brought about by the 1986 revision is arguable, though the manner in which the text emerges out of its syllabic and parenthetical austerity to assume unexpected textural richness and intricacy was inherent from the outset, and the present account left little doubt as to this music’s eloquence.

Between these works came Elliott Carter’s Penthode, not heard at these concerts since being premiered here 31 years ago and that could not then have been heard as merely an instalment in a creative odyssey still having over two decades to run. The five paths of its title taken by five ‘broken’ ensembles, the piece unfolds as a single-movement chamber symphony whose slow underlying pulse is increasingly overridden by music of a quizzical and often humorous demeanour; not least when directed with evident verve and assurance by Baldur Brönnimann.

An increasingly familiar figure in the UK, Brönnimann is in a line of conductors – stretching back to Boulez and beyond – as ensures this music retains its relevance for later generations, such that tonight’s Prom could never be mistaken for a nostalgic look back to a lost future.

Richard Whitehouse