Opera + Classical Music Reviews

BBCSO/Knussen @ Barbican Hall, London

16 December 2008

What makes the festivities for Elliott Carter’s 100th birthday unprecedented is the fact that he is still alive.

He is a true colossus of the musical world and is still composing; a feat that no other composer has achieved and it was remarkable that all the works in this concert were written in his 90s.

Most composers tend to reduce their output as they get older; Janacek was one notable exception and Elliott Carter, who celebrated his 100th birthday on 11 December is another. That he has reached his first century is an achievement in itself, but the fact that he is still composing is unique in the annals of classical music. In fact in the last decade he has produced a flourish of new and exciting works, which are the more remarkable when one remembers that they were written when the composer was in his 90s.

Carter was present at the first American performance of The Rite of Spring and this experience made him want to become a composer as he told us via the first of six video recordings that preceded each work in this imaginative and rewarding BBCSO concert under the expert and exacting baton of Oliver Knussen.

All the works stemmed from the last decade and gave a wonderful exploration into the sound world and mind of this unique compositional voice. The evening began with the UK premiere of Sound Fields which was written last year for string orchestra. Like many of Carter’s compositions this was short, lasting only four minutes yet what makes Carter’s musical voice so distinctive is that he manages to say far more in four minutes that many other composers manage to do in forty. There was a hypnotic feeling to the work due to the ever-shifting clusters of sound that marked a departure from Carter’s usually abrasive style.

This was followed by the London premiere of his Cello Concerto, and all the composer’s hallmark traits were in evidence; extremely difficult solo writing, dispatched with relative ease by Anssi Karttunen, explosive tutti chords for the orchestra and plenty of wonderfully intricate detail. The next piece was Knussen’s suggestion as a companion piece to Sound Fields, so Carter composed Wind Rose for wind ensemble which was receiving its world premiere. Again, Carter has few equals who possess such a keen ear for detail and it was beneficial that Knussen repeated the work after its premiere, a second hearing certainly helped.

More delights came after the interval with the UK premiere of Mad Regales, where the composer displayed his wicked sense of humour and capacity for writing for the voice, in this case six solo singers from the BBC Singers who gave a virtuoso performance of this madrigal-inspired work. Two concerti concluded this fitting tribute, Carter’s astonishingly vivid Horn Concerto which was scrupulously played by Martin Owen and his Boston Concerto. The latter work is a dazzling testament to the composer’s mastery of the orchestra with its shimmering rain music’ and was played with superb technical assurance by the BBCSO.

This was a wonderful and fitting birthday tribute to the genius of Elliott Carter. Long may he continue composing!

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