in: Reviews

December 9, 2008

Carter’s Recent Horn Concerto
with What Inspired Him, 85 Years Ago


The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s tribute to Elliott Carter upon his centenary concluded on December 9 with Principal Horn James Sommerville’s performance of Carter’s Horn Concerto, written for him and the BSO in 2006 and first performed a year ago. It was interesting to compare this new work with the even newer Interventions for piano and orchestra premiered last week at the BSO, with Daniel Barenboim as soloist. Both works are at once incisive and contemplative in equal measure, with loud splashes of orchestral color, solo virtuosity, and long melodic lines in the strings, all characteristics of Carter’s abstract-expressionist orchestral style from his Piano Concerto (1967) to the present.

The horn is a superbly expressive instrument, and one wishes that there were more concertos available to the ambitious soloist. Four by Mozart and one by Haydn, plus two by Richard Strauss, are well known, and very infrequently you can find performances of Rosetti’s Concerto for Two Horns, or Schumann’s Concert Piece for Four Horns. The Horn Concerto by Carter, like last week’s Interventions, features a dialogue for the horn and the orchestra in successive well-defined episodes, light textures alternating with full. Where Interventions stressed dense harmony for the winds, this work used the divided strings for that purpose, sometimes with a fine impressionistic sheen such as one hears in Varèse’s big works.

The soloist has to fight hard to maintain equal standing with the orchestra, even though there are no orchestral horns – the brass section included only trumpets, trombones and a tuba. An athletic horn style was necessary when the larger part of the orchestra was let loose. One striking passage involved the horn in long melodic lines while the lumbering tuba provided a contrapuntal underpinning from across the stage, the dialogue constantly punctuated by staccato interjections in single attacks from the strings. Another episode opened up the full brass section with a piano running through it in sudden panic, while a long melody in the violins was answered by a load of metal percussion.

I had never seen a triple horn before, but Sommerville’s versatile instrument, a double horn with an added F alto loop, enabled him to get some high notes with less strain than would normally be possible. There are differences in tone, too, between the same register on different parts of the horn, and Carter made use of these. Full hand-stopping on the horn of course means a drastic change in tone color, as though the sound were coming from a mile away, and this too was a major resource in the concerto. In one of the quieter portions of the piece, with the solo horn thus occupied, one listened for even more remote sounds; I think it was the trumpets wearing Whispa mutes, which convert a normal pianissimo to something more like ppppp, but still audible. At the end of the work, after hanging on seemingly in desperation to a high F, the soloist stared at the sideways-leaning conductor face to face – like a moment of arm-wrestling to see who would give in – and then abruptly the ten-minute concerto was over.

What makes Beethoven’s symphonies as a group so remarkable is that they are all so strikingly different from each other; each is unique in its own way and within Beethoven’s work as a whole. For many who love his music, the Seventh Symphony is at the top of the list of favorites. Wagner said it for all time when he remarked that the Seventh “is the very apotheosis of the dance; it is the highest being of the dance, the most blissful act of bodily movement, ideally embodied, as it were, in tone.”  The Seventh has a longer and more highly developed slow introduction than any of his other works, and although this introduction reveals in microcosm a wealth of tonal adventures to come, there is no hint of the intensity of rhythms that will follow in four movements. Most people remember especially the slow movement, with its simple repeated rhythm of quarter, two eighths, quarter, quarter, on a single pitch. (Franz Schubert especially liked this rhythm, which dominates a number of his later works from the “Wanderer” Fantasy to the A minor Quartet, and I am convinced that the slow movement of Beethoven’s Seventh directly influenced the slow movement of Schubert’s Great C major Symphony.)

The performance we heard was rousing and at high emotional pitch. Only a world-class orchestra and conductor can maintain this kind of energy throughout, but there was no doubt at all on Tuesday night. I would have been happy to hear the exposition in the first movement repeated. James Levine took the Scherzo, with its double trio, at the fastest Presto I have ever heard in this work, but the precision was flawless – and I still remember the brilliance of Charles Munch’s 1952 BSO recording on which I was raised. The Allegro con brio finale too was a fine frenzy (does anyone remember Beethoven’s Irish folksong arrangement, “Save me from the Grave and Wise,” WoO 154, no. 8, from which Beethoven may have recycled four bars of melody?); in the culmination of the coda one could hear the mad oscillation of the bass line, E-D sharp, over and over again as the upper parts mounted higher and higher, only to be released by the subdominant cadence, marked fff for the first time in Beethoven’s symphonies. (He used this marking extremely rarely. It happens twice in the Eighth Symphony, once in the “Zapfenstreich” March for band, and, significantly, three times in the Leonore Overture no. 3. These are the only instances I know of.)

The concert ended with a mighty performance of The Rite of Spring, and once again I think of what a pleasure it was to hear this masterpiece twice in one week. My remarks about the work are elsewhere in these pages. Only one small performing criticism: the “weird chord” in solo-string harmonics in the bar just before no. 72, at the “Kiss to the Earth.” This is marked ppp in the score. Was it necessary to play it with a sforzato accent?

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, music harmony.


  1. Actually, the sforzando at that magical moment comes from Stravinsky rehearsing the piece with the Cleveland Orchestra while Levine was assistant conductor there in the 60s – as are quite a number of other niceties in his score… That surely wasn’t the only one you noticed?

    I always thought the first fff in Beethoven was just before the recapitulation in the first movement of the “Eroica”? Is that really only a ff?

    Comment by Ken — December 11, 2008 at 5:14 pm

  2. Verrry interesting! And I believe it. It’s not in Stravinsky’s own 1960 recording, nor is it indicated in the 1967 score, so it would have to be classified as one of those innumerable changes that Stravinsky was regularly making even late in life; Bob Craft has been compiling as many of these as he can. The “Eroica” passage is FF but it is immediately preceded by F, and the two bars before that are marked PPP, so no wonder it sounds so shattering.

    Comment by Mark DeVoto — December 15, 2008 at 11:10 am

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