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Ursula Oppens: Oppens plays Carter; Pacifica Quartet: Elliott Carter String Quartets 2, 3, 4

img  Tobias Fischer

„I don't see any method at all, Sir“, Captain Willard confesses in „Apocalypse Now“, Francis Ford Coppola's classic meditation on war and human sacrifice. Many will feel the same towards the music of Elliot Carter: In his work, regular rhythm is divided into various independently moving layers, form replaced by freedom, while themes are clipped into pointed patterns without any obvious kind of melodic character. Rather than following a stringent story, one is, in effect, observing a multidimensional discourse, in which many different lines are brought into opposition and conflict. Formerly linear narratives are brutally split into a multitude of simultaneous strands, as though one were suddenly no longer just listening to the solitary voice of the composer but to a vivid and occasionally even violent discussion among the performers instead. While Carter's chamber music has largely maintained an aura of lyrical mystery and slender shapes, up to three entire orchestras can be heard playing with, against and, just as often, oblivious of each other in his larger-scale oeuvre, resulting in massive, exuberantly complex, polydirectional scores. In Frank Scheffer's  visually spellbinding documentary „Labyrinth of Time“, the director draws a parallel with the cacophony of a busy city street, with the voices of pedestrians, everyday sounds and the noises of cars and construction workers segueing into each other. It was intended to be a compliment, of course, but there can be no doubt about it: With its conscious sensory overload, Carter's music is often taking even his staunchest supporters to the limits of their perceptional capacities.

It hasn't stopped Carter's unstoppable rise to fame since re-surfacing from a self-imposed break as a reborn composer with his deliberately unaccommodating first string quartet in 1951 one bit. In fact, the „devine impenetrability“ of his releases may actually have increased their fascination in the eyes of the public. Especially today, a new generation of demanding listeners, bored both by the cheap simulacrum of pop and the easy-to-see-through niche-recipes of the institutionalised Avantgarde, is coming to regard his oeuvre, despite its admission into the canon, as a last bulwark against banality. At a time, when all secrets of music have supposedly been decoded and its ability to reinvent itself run dry, it is certainly no mean claim that one can still discover intriguing new details in a work after years of intense scrutiny.

Which, almost by default, qualifies his pieces for solo Piano an ideal entry portal for his work. Here, after all, Carter, while still capable of exhibiting the recognisable particulars of his style, is forced to whittle it down to its essence. Even though he still, at times, enjoys splattering the score with myriads of dots, like a pointillist action painter hurling his entire set of freshly dipped brushes onto the canvas like sonic darts, it is not so much an affluence of simultaneous events which makes these tracks so utterly recognisable, but their nervously oscillating pulse rates, their impulsive rushes of cascading and ascending notes, their stubborn abidance in an uneasy quantum state between stability and confusion. If a lot of this material sounds perilously ambitious, then that's because – well - it is: As someone who has always worked in close creative partnerships with instrumentalists, Carter's first creative step usually consists in carefully gauging how far he can go – only to then exceed that limit by a teasing fraction. It's not virtuosity for virtuosity's sake which is fueling his vision, but the notion that, in order to keep his audience at the tip of their seats throughout, the performer needs to be engaged in a tightrope act as well, constantly at the edge of her or his technical faculties. It lends these pieces an air of immanent danger as well as a taste of pent-up adrenalin and transports them to a realm where sounds are seemingly drawn from the unconscious void, rather than from mere sheets of paper.

Even Ursula Oppens, who has followed, promoted and accompanied Carter's development as a composer for a large chunk of her life, has never lost her initial fascination. One could even go as far and claim that, together with Paul Jacobs, Charles Rosen and Gilbert Kalish, Oppens was co-responsible for Carter's return to the keyboard after a lengthy absence of 35 years. Up until 1980, after all, the sole Piano-piece in his repertory was his „Sonata“, a momentous, almost 25-minute long piece of romantic fervor. In Oppens's rendition, it has lost nothing of its youthful energy: While the Sonata's first movement is intermittently interrupted by thunderous, pulverising chords, the second was constructed along the lines of a tender, dreamy introduction, passages of emotional arousal and a curious fugue, which sucks the listener straight into its vortex. While still using a more or less traditional form, there is no real thematic development here. Rather, key sequences are awarded a Leitmotif-function, returning as markers throughout the piece and awarding it a remarkable atmospheric coherency. Carter is not yet rebelling against his time, here. But there is clearly a will to transcend proven paths and to work towards something entirely his own.

That moment came when the abovementioned quartet of Pianists commissioned a new work from him. Carter responded with „Night Fantasies“, a single-movement trip through, as he put it, the „fleeting thoughts and feelings that pass trough the mind during a period of wakefulness at night“. Dark, monolithic and imposing, it feels as though every single idea of the Sonata were garishly reflected by a distorted mirror and then beamed through a parallel dimension at warp-speed. Opening with a beguiling moment of tranquility, the piece quickly enters a zone of short, feverish episodes, like a somnambulist falling from one nightmare into the next, from sleep into a slumber and into waking, until it has become impossible to distinguish between dream and reality anymore. Frantic sprints in the right hand are counterpointed by rude tectonic sighs in the left and long stretches of alternating runs suddenly stifled by reflective moments of repose. The introductory motive keeps returning throughout - not so much verbatim, but as a feeling drenched in sustain. Carter really wasn't interested in subjecting his ideas to a traditional developmental treatment – in fact it is only by seceding from it, that he is capable of sharing an intense and quite unique experience with his audience.

Oppens's passion for this immersive piece is amply apparent. Yet, she is no stranger to the more recent and notably shorter works, which make up the second half of the disc, either. While these tracks, written between 1994 and 2007 (at the tender age of 99, mind you), they display yet another side to the composer's personality, while retaining most of his characteristic whims. The angular metrics and truncated themes are thus preserved, while appearing embedded into relatively lightweight „diversions“ or even as a birthday serenade („Matribute“ was written for James Levine's mother). On the absolutely dazzling „Catenaires“, Oppens turns into a human sequencer, flying through an uninterrupted chain of lightning-speed notes. It is a showstopping piece, which belies the uncompromisingly serious public image of their author and closes out the album in unexpectedly exhilarating style.

While Carter's writings for the Piano are still awaiting a wider public appreciation, all of his string quartets – or at least three out of five, with the two most recent entries in the catalogue perhaps not yet quite as lavishly praised as their predecessors – are by now considered standards. The reason for this unanimously rapturous reception can be found in the way they have effectively added a new dimension to the format. In Carter's approach, the individual members of the group are not just treated as abstract, sound-producing entities (i.e. as a „cello“ or „viola“), but elevated to the status of fully-fledged personalities, „acting out“ (in the composer's words) with their instruments as part of a musical drama. This idea is most transparent in the second and third quartet. On the former, each instrument is given a set of intervals and a unique character, trying to make its voice heard while also searching for modes of constructive interaction. What sounds pretty straight-forward on paper and has resulted in a far more concise work barely half the length of its predecessor, in fact cost its author ages to finish – roughly two thousand pages of related notes and studies testifying to the arduous process leading up to its completion. The latter, meanwhile, is a devilishly intricate construction, in which two duos (cello and first violin versus viola and second violin) are essentially playing two different pieces at the same time, at different speeds and with different movement-breaks. Owing to the constantly shifting time signatures, it was only after a full year of rehearsals that the Juillard ensemble felt ready to perform it. Since the premiere, subsequent ensembles have reverted to the use of a special click track, which Carter's publisher kindly doled out to anyone wishing to give things a try.

Astoundingly, however, the third may perhaps be the most accessible of all Carter-quartets – if you listen to it on headphones, that is. With Duo II on your left ear and Duo I on the right, it is anything but complicated to divert your attention to one of them and consider the other an ambient compliment – or to wallow in the magic occurring when the two come together in instances of surreal confluence. It is quite a fantastical journey notwithstanding, especially since the pairings are mostly performing starkly contrasting music – such as in the opening sequence, when the „Furioso“ of the viola and second violin is counterpointed by a gracefully drifting „Maestoso“ in the cello and first violin. Quite often, these sequences are surprisingly dominated by the tranquil rather than the fast-paced movements, resulting in a slowly flowing stream of melancholic harmonies superseded by violently raging and sawing strings. What may have appeared alien and incomprehensible to many at the time of its unveiling in fact seems almost affectionate and spacey to contemporary senses, conditioned by the algorithmic soundscapes of Electronica-formations like autechre.

After interpretations by the Juillard Quartet (who have been of seminal importance in the dissemination and „popularisation“ of the works), the Arditti Quartet (who were equally influential in terms of recording them) as well as the Composer's Quartet, the Pacifica Quartet are representing the aforementioned new generation of Carter-afficionados, to whom a central mark of great music is the amount of detail one can keep culling from it eve after repeat listens. Their idea of touring with a program of all five quartets on one night was a maverick success, which the composer admiringly called „amazing“. Their affiliation with Naxos and the sympathetically low price of the albums makes them available to a wider audience than ever before. And by adding the fifth (and most likely final) installment of the series to their bill, their performance is the only complete one currently on the market. Add to that the fact that these versions, which came into being in close affiliation with their epic three-hour live stagings, are played with passion, precision and whit, and you have – questions of taste aside – what currently amounts to the quintessential recording.

It is interesting to note that the gradual opening-up of Elliott Carter's work to the public at large is not just a service performed by long-standing standardbearers of this kind of repertoire such as Cedille and Naxos, but by a major player like EMI, who included him into their „American Classics“ series as well. Whether or not that will make him as popular as, say, Steve Reich, remains unlikely. But as his methods are becoming increasingly apparent, Carter's popularity is bound to grow over the next few decades.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Ursula Oppens
Homepage: Cedille Records
Homepage: Pacifica Quartet
Homepage: Naxos Records

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