The new-music ensemble Collage, with soprano Tony Arnold dedicated its program to the chamber music of Elliott Carter Sunday at the Longy School’s Edward Pickman Hall in Cambridge. During a pre-concert panel discussion, poet and critic Lloyd Schwartz observed that Carter’s music is little performed these days in Boston. But it was only a few years ago that James Levine was leading Carter premieres at Symphony, and one can hope that the current hiatus in hearings of his larger compositions—which include a “Boston Concerto”—will be temporary, despite the difficulties they pose for performers and presenters as well as listeners.
Carter, who died in 2012 at the age of 103, continued to compose into his last year, producing an astonishing series of diverse works during his last decades, including his first and only opera. Sunday night’s program focused on music from two of the composer’s seven or eight decades of activity: 1942–52 and 1991–2001, that is, relatively early and relatively late. Absent were examples from the later 50s, 60s, and 70s, during which Carter wrote the large, immensely complex compositions for which he is best known, such as the Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano with Two Chamber Orchestras, or the Symphony of Three Orchestras—to name two pieces in which Carter’s signature idea of simultaneously juxtaposing distinct types of music, often played by distinct ensembles, is inherent in their very titles.
The works on Sunday’s program were more modest, at least in terms of scoring, but they included two of his more important chamber works, the Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello, and Harpsichord of 1952 and the song cycle Tempo e tempi for soprano and four players, from 1998–99. The most imposing and significant work on the program, however, was the Piano Sonata of 1945–46, which received a rousing performance by Christopher Oldfather. A number of smaller compositions rounded out the program.
The music received performances at the high level that one expects from Collage. Director David Hoose actually conducted only Tempo e tempi, but he also led the pre-concert “conversation” with Schwartz and flutist-composer John Heiss, and he was an able page-turner for Oldfather. The latter joined soprano Arnold in the opening selection, the rarely heard song “Voyage” from 1943. Schwartz, noting Carter’s “devotion” to contemporary American poets, mentioned the composer’s “almost impeccable taste” in selecting his texts, which are often, however, as difficult and quirky as Carter’s music. The only American poem heard Sunday, however, was this one (“Voyages no. 3”) by Hart Crane, set in the neoclassic style of the composer’s early years. With some imagination, one can hear commonalities between this, or the program’s other really early piece (the Cello Elegy of 1939), and music written 60 or even 70 years later. But the differences remain stark, despite the composer’s unswerving attention to counterpoint (emphasized in Heiss’s remarks), or rather to a view of music as a sort of conversation between highly contrasting, even contradictory types of music. Each player (or singer) becomes a character in a metaphorical drama.
This approach had emerged clearly in Carter’s music by 1952, the year of the Harpsichord Quartet. This 15-minute piece used to be considered one of the composer’s first “mature” works, in which different instruments play simultaneously in distinct tempos or meters. Successive sections are related not by changes of key or tonality but by “metric modulations,” mathematically precise proportions between the speeds of consecutive passages. These metric modulations replaced traditional tonal modulations in shaping the music. Daunting on paper, the device produces a dialog of contrasting expressive characters, at least when realized by musicians as expert as those of Collage. Yet what once seemed a signature device of the composer now looks like just one of a long sequence of inventions that also included a relatively uncomplicated, more accessible style late in life. And although the composer himself for a long time seemed to disavow his early tonal and neoclassic compositions, this program appeared to say that distinctions between those and later works are less crucial than they once seemed.
Still, the problems that Carter’s approach created for performers and audiences more than half a century ago were not entirely absent from this performance of the Harpsichord Quartet. Perhaps because I spent a semester in graduate school learning to play it, I may have been hyper-sensitive to minuscule imprecisions of rhythm. Moreover, percussive sounds emanating from the instrument—or from audible foot tapping—were no reflection on the careful preparation of the harpsichord by tuner Beth Harris. Rather they probably must be ascribed to the common practice of assigning a pianist to play an instrument that demands a distinct sort of playing technique. While on the subject, I should add that it would be instructive to hear performances of this and other 20th-century harpsichord music on instruments of the period, even if Carter himself assented to the use of the Baroque-style harpsichords that came into vogue by the 1960s. It may be that no live performance of this piece can capture the precise sonorities and the balance between harpsichord and the three other parts that the composer had in mind; still, the players did capture its humor and high spirits.
The first half closed with a set of mostly recent pieces for solo instruments. The high level of playing makes it hard to single out any one of the performances. Catherine French gave an intense reading of Rhapsodic Musings for violin, whereas Robert Annis displayed uncommon sweetness in the higher passages of Sweet Steps for bass clarinet, much of which lies in the uppermost range of the instrument. Figment VI for oboe, the most recent piece on the program (2011), received an eloquent performance of its almost tonal, almost neoclassic singing line from Peggy Pearson. This was juxtaposed effectively with the more purely neoclassic Cello Elegy of either 1939, 1942, or 1943 (depending on which source, or perhaps which version, one uses), played by Joel Moerschel together with Figment II from 2001. Longest and most monumental of these pieces—the adjective is not inappropriate, for although short and thinly scored these are not miniatures—was the 1991 Scrivo in vento for solo flute. The title is part of a line from a sonnet by Petrarch, “I write in the wind,” reflected in some of the piece’s wispier passages. Here Christopher Krueger emphasized the sharp contrasts at the outset of the piece between explosive high notes and a quiet lower line.
The same type of contrast, albeit within a much older style, occurs at the beginning of the Piano Sonata. Oldfather gave this an authoritative performance, making it the high point of the evening. The Piano Sonata is not an easy piece to like, requiring several hearings to appreciate both its originality and its profound expression. Superficially neoclassic and almost tonal, it shares some of its sound as well as it substance with the more challenging music of Stravinsky and Copland of the period: I thought especially of the Symphonies of Wind Instruments. Yet the piece’s design—two lengthy, complex movements—is virtually unprecedented, and it was the first major instance of many compositions in Carter’s output whose musical ideas grew out of the capabilities of the instrument itself: in this case the piano’s ability to sustain chords in various ways (using both damper and sustaining pedals, for example) and to produce several types of harmonics and sympathetic vibrations.
These special effects, rarely employed by composers and requiring a sensitive ear and hand from the performer, were clearly audible, although I felt occasionally that a slightly less propulsive rendering might have given them a bit more time to sink in, to make their presence more tangible. A long fugue, which constitutes the central part of the second movement, seemed almost too long in this performance, its “American” syncopations and other neoclassicisms played perhaps a bit too emphatically. But the power of the piece shone through at the end as the echoes of the first movement (initially played quite crashingly) began to return, quietly. Oldfather captured the grandeur of this ending, which although soft avoids the simple elegiasm of Copland in favor of something more challenging. The underspoken conclusion is, however, one reason why this piece will never be any more popular than another great two-movement piano sonata with a big fugal movement and a quiet ending (Beethoven’s op. 111).
The eight-song cycle Tempo e tempi (Times and tempos) takes its name from that of the opening poem by the 20th-century Italian poet Eugenio Montale. But the title is also a play on Carter’s lifelong obsession with time and rhythm. I wish that either the pre-concert “conversation” or the program booklet had explained this or some of the other devices employed in the music. For example, in the introduction to the opening song the oboe and clarinet play the same melody at different speeds and in different orientations, one of them inverted (played upside down). Even in an audience as familiar with new music as this one, I overheard listeners at intermission asking what, for example, it means to overblow on a wind instrument (a device used in “Steep Steps” and Scrivo in vento). Much as one may have enjoyed the anecdotes offered in the pre-concert “conversation,” some of these were repeated from the program booklet, and it might have been more useful to present instead a clearer explanation, with examples, of some of Carter’s signal ideas.
These songs nevertheless received a sublime reading from Tony Arnold. Carter’s recitative-like approach to setting texts, avoiding repetitions of words or melodic ideas, requires not only accuracy of pitch and rhythm but close attention to diction and sonority if it is to be effective. This performance gave more than that. I was particularly impressed not only by the quietly beautiful rendition of the fourth song (“Una colomba,” one of three brief epigrams by Giuseppe Ungaretti), but also by the carefully modulated climax of a second Montale song, “L’Arno a Rovezzano,” for which director Hoose and his players also deserve compliments. One does not leave the hall humming the tunes of these songs. But Carter’s continually inventive sounds stick in the mind, as do his underlying musical ideas. I hope we will continue to hear concerts like this, as well as performances of Carter’s larger works.