by Steve Hicken

It’s been discussed at some length how the music of Elliott Carter’s late late period (however it’s defined) is “easier” to hear. Back in the 1980s, when this idea began to gain some critical purchase, Andrew Porter, writing in The New Yorker, asked if Carter had gotten easier to hear or if we had learned how to hear him better. Porter’s answer, of course, was (paraphrasing) “a little of both.”

What has always appealed to me in Carter’s work is how he uses sharply-etched gestures to define and delineate musical characters that interact with other such characters over the course of a piece. In his “middle” period, roughly from the First Quartet (1951) through the 1970s, the major works would often be populated with a multitude of characters deployed in simultaneous and overlapping gestures. (It is in this sense that Carter’s music signifies urban America, whereas so much American concert music centers on our rural experience.)

In the later music, then, Carter has reduced the number of characters in play, and so the textures are thinner, more transparent. The drama is still there, in all its urgency, irony, and humor, but the players are, in a sense, fewer.

Charles Rosen described the classical-era concerto as a “drama of entrances,” and I think this description applies beautifully, in subtly different ways from piece to piece, to the music on Elliott Carter: Late Works, new from the Ondine label. (Get it from Amazon.) In Interventions, which is unlike so much of the composer’s late music in that it is a full-length piece, it’s not always clear who’s intervening in what, but the contrasts between the piano and orchestral music are telling. The two pieces called Dialogues are just that, discussions between an individual and a group, with a bit of the Socratic in the proceedings. Soundings has Carter in his more apocalyptic or tragic mode, with violent outbursts erupting between piano and orchestra, before the still, small voices within each have the last word, an ending very typical of the composer.

Pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, a longtime champion of Carter, plays all of these pieces with style, seemingly endless technique, and understanding. He is joined by percussionist Colin Currie for Two Controversies and a Conversation, as colorful and at times fleet-footed a piece as Carter ever composed. This piece, in part due to Currie’s masterful explanation, is more evidence for the idea that Carter was one of the greatest percussion composers we’ve had.

The album closes with two pieces without soloists. Instances is scored for chamber orchestra. A note by Carter describes it as “a series of short interrelated episodes of varying character,” and it would make a fine introduction to the composer. The episodes are highly characterized and clear in their expressive content. The 12 Epigrams are Carter’s final work. They sum him up and, appropriately for this ever-searching composer, also point in new directions. Mr. Aimard is joined by cellist Jean-Guihen Quayras and violinist Isabelle Faust (whose recording of the Berg and Beethoven concertos I’ve been enjoying recently) for a performance that is highly detailed and spontaneous sounding.

Five of the seven works given here are premiere recordings: Only Dialogues (Nicolas Hodges, London Sinfonietta, conducted by Oliver Knussen) and Instances (Seattle Symphony, conducted by Ludovic Morlot) have appeared on disc before. Throughout the program, Knussen, another longtime Carter champion, leads his forces in committed and energetic performances. Noted Carter expert John Link’s notes are well-written and among the most informative I’ve ever read. Ondine’s sound is clear and detailed. By now it’s probably not a surprise that I highly recommend this disc.

Get Elliott Carter: Late Works from Amazon

Stream it on Spotify:


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