At the end of October, Elliott Carter appeared onstage at Zankel Hall in a witty turn as the Soldier in Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat, with John Harbison as the Narrator and Milton Babbitt as the Devil, in a Met Chamber Ensemble performance conducted by James Levine. To watch Carter grinning, uttering the words, “Milton, you rotten thief!” was worth the entire afternoon. More chances to see the composer will start on January 25, when Juilliard’s 2008 Focus! festival, cleverly titled All About Elliott, begins with Pierre Boulez conducting the New Juilliard Ensemble in Carter’s Triple Duo, Penthode, and the Clarinet Concerto. James Levine is on the podium for the festival’s final night, when he will lead the Juilliard Orchestra in the Cello Concerto and the New York premiere of Symphonia: sum fluxae pretium spei. The Symphonia and the Clarinet Concerto appear on one of the best Carter discs available (on Deutsche Grammophon) conducted by Oliver Knussen, who also conducts the Cello Concerto, with soloist Fred Sherry, on the seventh volume of Bridge Records’s ongoing Carter cycle. This generous disc includes the Boston Concerto (2007 Grammy nominee for best contemporary composition), the ASKO Concerto, and pianist Nicolas Hodges and the London Sinfonietta sprinting through Dialogues from 2003.
After investing decades in the painstaking development of his mature style—he published only three pieces in the 1960s—Carter, who turns 99 on December 11, has become prolific in his old age. He’s written more than 30 works since turning 90, and he’s still composing: in mid-November his new Horn Concerto debuted with Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Fortunately his creativity has been well documented in scores of recordings, many by the most distinguished artists of our time. It’s almost impossible to go wrong choosing among them. To narrow the field a bit, I’ve confined recommendations to all-Carter recordings, and steered away from those out of print (often at steep prices), in favor of CDs more widely available.
On the budget Arte Nova label and now reissued with a considerably more handsome cover, Ursula Oppens, Michael Gielen, and the SWF Symphony Orchestra provide a stirring account of the Piano Concerto (1964), with Gielen and the ensemble in crack form for the 1969 Concerto for Orchestra and Three Occasions, gems from the mid-1980s. For comparison, you may want to check out Oppens’s earlier version of the Piano Concerto, also with Gielen (here with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra on New World) and coupled with the Variations for Orchestra, one of Carter’s seminal works from the 1950s.
Some of the composer’s most translucent writing appears in his song cycles, inspired by eloquent writers such as John Ashbery, Eugenio Montale, and Giuseppe Ungaretti. In Bridge’s first volume, Vocal Works (1975-1981), Christine Schadeberg triumphs in A Mirror on Which to Dwell, using six poems by Elizabeth Bishop. Speculum Musicae provides alert instrumental work, and the entire disc is almost worth acquiring solely for the pecking oboe figure in “Sandpiper.” And even those fearful of dipping a toe into Carter waters would respond to the relative simplicity of Three Poems of Robert Frost (1942), warmly sung by Patrick Mason.
Finally, like many string quartet cycles, Carter’s five—written from 1951 to 1995—form an outline of his development. On Nonesuch, the Composers String Quartet captures the complexity of Carter’s rhythmic experiments in the First Quartet, which he wrote “to try to understand myself,” and the Second (from 1959), exuding equal audacity. The Arditti Quartet has also recorded all of them, but I am partial to their 1998 disc on Auvidis Montaigne, with Oppens again on hand for the Sonata for Cello and Piano (1948), the Duo for Violin and Piano (1973-74), and three smaller works from 1994. The Arditti gives a virtuosic reading of the Fifth Quartet (1994-95), with its masterful transparency. And Carter wrote it when he was 87.