ELLIOTT CARTER: Cello Sonata; Figments 1 and 2; Enchanted Preludes; Scrivo in Vento; Gra; Con Leggerezza Pensosa; Fragments 1 and 2; Elegy – Johannes Martens Ensemble – 2L Multichannel SACD 54, 64:20 ***** [Distr. by Qualiton]:
Elliott Carter has always been something of a mystery to me. My first experience with his music came via Leonard Bernstein’s recording of the Concerto for Orchestra years ago, followed in quick succession by the Juilliard Quartet’s reading of his second and third quartets, surely a couple of the most turgid and impenetrable pieces ever written. Even in those days (early 1970s) of heady academia and politically correct approval of everything avant-garde, this music was considered formidable, and still is. Yet Carter’s star has continued its steady rise among musicians (rarely among the public), and the 100+ recordings currently available match the composer’s age, at least as of this coming December.
Since that time I discovered the early and oftentimes interesting tonal music he had written, and even now I can see a change in his style, though it may be only a matter of degree. But there is not much to dislike about the Cello Sonata, written when the composer was only 42, and full of inflected jazz lines and offsetting rhythms. I am almost convinced that the work would be a major repertory item if only the name Carter was not attached to it—it is certainly deserving of such status. Joining this piece is his Elegy, originally written for cello and piano also, but here given in its string quartet guise – fine, American, and hardly objectionable by anyone.
The other eight works here were composed after the composer turned 80, and inhabit a different sound world completely. If you have ever seen a Carter score you know how enormously forbidding his music can look, and when the notes are transposed into sound it doesn’t get much easier. Suffice it to say that his music cannot be apprehended in its complex totality—it just isn’t possible to hear everything that is written. These mainly brief pieces are scored for a variety of instruments (flute, clarinet, quartet, piano), and are best approached by simply letting the music wash over you. It reminds me of the aural equivalent of a Jackson Pollack drip painting—you have to step back and perceive the thing in its entirety without worrying so much about the details. Using that approach can yield some rich rewards, unevenly perhaps, but they are there to be had.
The young players on this disc are simply the bomb, and 2L’s SACD recording is fabulous, some of the best SA I have ever heard, luxuriant and soft as a high grade feather pillow, with excellent spread. Not everyone will hasten to acquire this I know, but if Carter doesn’t scare you off you are in for quite a treat.
— Steven Ritter