Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Elliott Carter: The Minotaur

Still active as a centenarian, the remarkable American composer Elliott Carter died last week at 103.  His work has been characterized as complex and difficult and, to varying degrees, this is true with "modern music" generally, but there is a great breadth and depth to Carter's work over many decades.  For Carter, polyphony, with different sounds emerging from elements of an orchestra, and contrasting and varied rhythms and tonalities working within different sections, became his hallmark.  So, as is the case with so much recent music, it also takes some recalibration of a listener's ears to appreciate what is going on when one is used to hearing music the "traditional" way.

Consequently, it might be easier to start with Carter by delving into his earlier music and this Elektra Nonesuch recording from 1992 offers selections from the composer's 1940s work, when he was starting to be recognized as an emerging new voice.  And, while the music is not as "challenging" as what came later, especially in the 1960s, it is possible to hear where Carter was going.

While his ballet, The Minotaur, was not often performed, it had its roots in 1946 with the famed impresario George Balanchine, who worked with Carter on the thematic conception based on Greek mythology.  Just as the process was undertaken, however, Balanchine was invited to be a guest ballet master with the Paris Opera and the work of choreographing The Minotaur fell to his assistant, John Taras and the work premiered in March 1947.  Even though performances were few, Carter did rework the music into a concert suite, recorded here in 1988.

The stately melodic statement is striking and memorable and the work overall is about as traditional as Carter ever came.  While this might strike some people as an aberration and not essential to the composer's body of work, YHB, with all of his ignorance about the technical niceties of classical composition, enjoys The Minotaur as a balanced blend of so-called neo-classicism with modern elements.

There is a bit of a diversion with two of three short pieces accompanying poems of the great Robert Frost.  They are beautifully rendered by mezzo soprano Jan De Gaetani and pianist Gilbert Kalish and would seem entirely out of place perhaps if not followed by Carter's Piano Sonata.

This is a generally romantic piece in two movements, and yet again, infused with some of the variable rhythms, harmonic elements and coloration that foresaw the composer's later development.  But, it is a nice balance with gorgeous lyricism, stately cadenzas, rapid passages abruptly turning into slow, halting ones, so that the marking of tempo is not at all strictly observed, but that's part of the interest generated by these shifting sounds.  Pianist Paul Jacobs plays beautifully and the recording quality is excellent, as well.

The Piano Sonata is generally considered Carter's major achievement in his earlier period and it is a very fine work, elegantly rendered here.  But, The Minotaur is also very enjoyable, whether heard as accompaniment to modern ballet or on its own terms.  Future posts will concern Carter's work in the 1960s and in more recent years, in which the complexity grew tremendously, but also brought him  acclaim as one of the more versatile and appreciated modern composers.

May the amazing Elliott Carter, creator of so much wonderful music for so many years, rest in peace and may his music be heard for many centuries to come.

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