ELLIOTT CARTER: Oppens plays Carter – Ursula Oppens, piano – Cedille CDR 90000 108, 70:53 [Distr. by Allegro] ****:
“The ear tends to be lazy, craves the familiar and is shocked by the unexpected . . ." said poet W.H. Auden. Elliott Carter’s piano music, no matter how often you listen to it, never seems familiar, is often shocking, and is always unexpected. The man is incapable of predictability and sentimentality, even now, at age 100. In Oppens plays Carter, we get to hear his complete piano music performed by Ursula Oppens, a truly skilled musician. Through her uninhibited fingers Carter’s arpeggio spurts and marcarto assaults (“Diversions”; “Matribute”) come at us hard, fast, and colourful, like globs from a paintball gun.
She conveys his impish sense of humor as well, as in his Piano Sonata (1946), with a stentorian opening that Carter soon deflates with a Bartokian flourish. The piece was considered unplayable at the time, perhaps because of Carter’s dislike for simplistic themes and development. Don’t listen for charming melody swatches in the style of Aaron Copland. One of his favorite techniques is to lull the listener into a groove of a few bars, then abruptly switch to some other musical device, like a sudden inversion or jarring chord. This CD provides a snapshot of a style that evolved over a sixty year period. Even in 1946, the “Piano Sonata” seems like abstract expressionism set to music.
The wryly titled “Two Thoughts About the Piano” (2006) is a more jagged work, with even fewer tonal bonbons thrown the listener’s way. Perhaps this is why it can be difficult to attract people in his music, even those familiar with the proto-electronic soundscapes of Edgar Varese or the confounding repetitions of Morton Feldman. There is no “accessible” early Carter to slide in the listener’s direction, like a plate of spicy Cajun prawns. Like Iannis Xenakis, he is a true member of the post-war avantgarde—always stretching his creative muscles, along with the ears of his listeners. [I’ll allow Ives to stretch my ears anytime, but for me Carter calls for ear plugs…Ed.]
— Peter Bates