Classical Music Home

Welcome to Naxos Records

Keyword Search
 Classical Music Home > Naxos Album Reviews

Album Reviews

See latest reviews of other albums...

Carla Rees
MusicWeb International, November 2009

This Naxos release features chamber music by Elliott Carter as part of the American Classics series, to coincide with Carter’s 100th birthday. Containing a selection of works, from ensembles to solo instrumental, the disc demonstrates part of the range of Carter’s compositional output.

Mosaic is for solo harp and an ensemble of seven players, written as a tribute to the harpist Carlos Salzedo and commissioned by the Nash Ensemble. It is made up of many small fragments which slot together in the style of a Mosaic. Erica Goodman’s harp playing is impressive throughout, with a polished ensemble providing support and colour.

The solo works feature various instruments, beginning with Robert Aitken playing Scrivo in Vento for solo flute, which was dedicated to him. Aitken is well established as a champion of new music and his performance has both elegance and a sense of understanding, with the multiphonics well executed and a strong sense of melodic direction. Based on a poem by Petrarch, the piece uses extremes of pitch and rapid contrasts of playing style. Gra for solo clarinet is a playful work with dexterous energy, composed for Lutoslawski’s eightieth birthday. Max Christie’s playing impresses with its lightness of touch and sonorous tone.

The Enchanted Preludes are a six minute duo for flute and cello. Carter packs much into the work’s short duration and it has a grander sense of scale than one would expect from a miniature. The material is organized as a set of short interlinked sections which challenge and sparkle. The short bass clarinet solo, Steep Steps was composed in 2001 and is a true miniature, with a duration of under three minutes. The piece features leaps of a twelfth - based on the bass clarinet’s overtone series - and serves as an enjoyable character study of the instrument.

The solo cello features in the two Figments, with the first of the two pieces composed in 1994 and the second in 2001 with the subtitle Remembering Mr Ives. The two pieces complement each other well, with the second perhaps a little more subdued than the first, quoting fragments of music from Charles Ives. Carter’s cello writing is resonant and expressive, and as with his other instrumental solos, he seems to elicit a sense of the instrument’s character through the music. David Hetherington performs with delicacy and exuberance in equal measure, giving life to the music and possessing a richness of tone which is a pleasure to listen to.

Fujiko Imajishi’s performance of the Riconoscenza per Goffredo Petrassi is expressive and poignant. Written for Petrassi’s eightieth birthday celebrations, the piece features long static lines interspersed with flashes of sound and flowing lines. The stillness has a dramatic effect, especially within the context of the complexity of some of Carter’s other works, and there is a sense of contemplation in the performance. The second solo violin work, Rhapsodic Musings was written for Robert Mann and features his initials in the musical material.

The final work on the disc is the longest and uses the largest instrumental forces. Dialogues is almost orchestral in its scale, using eighteen players in addition to a solo piano. Composed for Nicolas Hodges, the title of the work comes from the interaction between the soloist and ensemble, with a sense of discourse, reaction and interruption. This is an engaging and nimble work, and Robert Aitken’s ensemble is polished throughout. David Swan’s piano playing is both technically impressive and musically sensitive, giving a performance which is meaningful and controlled.

The disc comes paired with a fascinating DVD which features an interview with Elliott Carter conducted during a visit to Toronto in 2006. Robert Aitken also provides wonderful insights into Carter’s music, making this DVD worth the price of the disc alone.

This is a fantastic product, with world class recordings of Carter’s music. Robert Aitken’s work with the New Music Concerts ensemble is of an extremely high standard, demonstrating an excellent understanding of the composer.

Gary Higginson
MusicWeb International, June 2009

This release not only comes with ten recent works, most of them quite short, but also a DVD making it even better value for money.

Neither I nor anyone I asked could think of another composer who, in the entire history of music was still so active musically and intellectually as Elliot Carter at the age of 100. These pieces are challenging for performers and audiences alike and yet they reap astonishing rewards.

I found it informative and useful first to watch the interview conducted in front of an enthusiastic audience in May 2006 on the DVD. It is conducted by Robert Aitken, the Canadian flautist and director of the New Music Concerts Ensemble. Afterwards I watched the live performance of ‘Mosaic’ before hearing it as track 1 of the CD. I was reminded of something I learned when I attended Carter’s 90th birthday concert at the Barbican and that is the extraordinary visceral quality of the music. Visually it is compelling. The effect of the swift movement of sound across the ensemble and speedy movement of bows and hands flashing across the stage is like nothing else I know.

‘Mosaic’ features the harp and is dedicated to the late great harpist of over fifty years ago Carlo Salzedo whom Carter knew and who made remarkable discoveries in the expansion of harp techniques. Carter admits in the interview something which all composers would agree with, that first the guitar and then the harp are the hardest instruments to write for. The utterly amazing Erica Goodman gets her hands and her feet around the strings and pedals fluently and effortlessly. She comes in for especial thanks from the composer who set her such challenges. It is a remarkable piece. Carter admits that its form is very free, rather like a fantasy, unique really. It’s a structure that makes sense especially as it gathers towards its climax one minute from the end and then offers its throw-away final bars. The studio recording on CD 1 moves along with a little more focus and clarity.

The longest work represented both on the CD and in a live performance on the DVD is ‘Dialogues’, completed in 2004. The title tells us that the ideas, sometimes melodies—often just chords—are passed between the piano and ensemble in a chamber music type conversation despite the fact that this is for an ensemble of sixteen musicians plus piano. Played in a single span it is possible to decipher a clear form. I hear an agitated opening movement beginning with a cor anglais solo which collapses into a slow section marked by dramatic crescendo chords in strings punctuated by piano. Then follows a brief, airy scherzo ending with a longer finale which mixes the tempi, brings back the cor anglais motif and ends with a whimsical coda. On the DVD the recorded balance is not that good and because the redoubtable David Swann has the piano lid up you not only cannot hear the instruments behind too well, but comically you can just see Robert Aitkin’s shock of white hair bobbing up and down behind it. The CD version is more incisive but Nicholas Hodges, the dedicatee when recording it for Bridge (9184) knocks a further minute off its duration resulting in a virtuoso but frenetic display in which certain passages do not have time to breathe. This is to me, the most Schoenbergian—a composer Carter quotes in the interview—of Carter scores.

Works for solo flute are not that common. The DVD touches on Aitkin’s performance of ‘Scrivo in vento’ which was stimulated by a sonnet of Petrarch and which, by coincidence received its first performance on the poet’s birthday. Its use of the lowest register at the start reminded me of Debussy and Varèse. Very soon extremes of register become significant, so much that the music becomes a dialogue of registers played by one person. I wonder though if the music’s rhythmic difficulties will take it out of the ability range of those who at present will happily tackle Debussy’s ‘Syrinx’ and Varèse’s ‘Density’. Perhaps…we shall see.

The flute features again in a duo with cello. It’s a work dating from 1988. ‘Enchanted Preludes’ uses a line of Wallace Stevens “…the enchanted place/in which the enchanted preludes have their place”. How to find the words to describe this or any music I don’t know. But I can say that it is crepuscular, skittish and yet the counterpoint is sumptuous and impassioned as it reaches its inevitable climax before collapsing. Quite extraordinary.

The other works on the CD all played so magnificently and with such commitment are for solo instruments which Carter has made a specialty of in recent years. Some are available elsewhere and sometimes I prefer the earlier version for example the first of the two ‘Figments’ for solo cello recorded by Rohan de Saram in 1994 (also on Auvidis Montaigne 782091). A seemingly argumentative piece as it flirts between contrasting registers. It’s apt that the second Figment should be subtitled ‘Remembering Mr.Ives’ as it was he who much encouraged the young Carter to continue with compositional studies. I rather prefer it, possibly as it appears a little more tonal with its quotes from Ives’s ‘Concord Sonata’ and ‘Halloween’. Needless to say both are brilliantly mastered by David Hetherington.

You might be tempted to think the remaining pieces on this disc as just chippings from the Carter workshop but although each is short in terms of length each does contain as it were a history, and is in microcosm the entire Carter experience. The first of the two works for solo violin ‘Riconoscenza’ was written for Petrassi’s 80th birthday and ‘Rhapsodic Musings’ is dedicated to Robert Mann for his “extraordinary, devoted advocacy to contemporary music”. Both pieces use ideas, as do so many Carter works, which on one hand can be aggressive and harsh, against those which are quiet and reconciliatory. The former piece is also quite elegiac in character. The latter seems as if it will a ternary form structure beginning aggressively fading into a quite passage of long held notes and double-stoppings and then reverting to aggressive patterns but Carter surprises us by inserting almost randomly quiet ones into the final seconds so that expectations are always surprised. Staggering well played by Fujiko Imajishi.

‘Gra’ is a scherzo-like concept, meaning ‘play’ in Polish and dedicated on his 80th birthday to Lutoslawski with whom Carter spent he says, many a happy hour, Max Christie captures the character of the piece brilliantly. Equally joyous and good spirited is the very brief ‘Steep Steps’ for bass clarinet and played by its brilliant dedicatee Virgil Blackwell.

This double album which comes with an anonymous essay, notes on each work by the composer and photos and biographies of the performers, offers amazing value and is testimony to an astonishing musical personality and to those who have dedicated so many hours to working with him and offering to us the fruits of their study. This music is consistent in style and full of integrity and even if you find it a difficult to grasp that is a rare commodity in much of the music of our time.

Richard Whitehouse
Gramophone, May 2009

100 not out: Carter still going strong in this collection of ensemble works

Framing it are two of his most striking recent ensemble pieces: Mosaic explores harp techniques evolved by inter-war virtuoso Carlos Salzedo, centred on a melodic “through line” around which evolves a discourse inventive and diverting by turns. Erica Goodman and New Music Concerts Ensemble are hardly less insightful than the Swiss Chamber Soloists (Neos), while in Dialogues David Swan yields only marginally to the pianism of Nicolas Hodges (Bridge) in music which, though not without peremptory asides, is a scintillating discourse of equals and probably the pick of Carter’s recent works.

From among Carter’s many miniatures inspired by fellow composers and musicians, Robert Aitken revels in the sharp contrasts of Scrivo in vento while Max Christie brings a fine-honed wit to Gra. Likewise Aitken and David Heatherington in Enchanted Preludes, flute and cello engaged in sensuous counterpoint, while Virgil Blackwell surpasses his earlier self in the lively paces through which Steep Steps puts bass clarinet. Heatherington does full justice to the Figments—the former given with thoughtful restraint, the latter Remembering Mr Ives with warm affection—as does Fujiko Imajischi the deft intensity of Riconoscenza and compacted energy of Rhapsodic Musings; outward display here tempered with an eloquence no less acute than that of Rolf Schulte.

The bonus DVD features performances of Mosaic and Dialogues, and Carter in lively conversation with Aitken. Swings and roundabouts as regards individual performances, but a worthwhile acquisition overall.

Steve Hicken, April 2009

This Naxos set is a valuable addition to the Carter discography, for at least a couple of reasons. It provides high-quality second (and in some cases more) recordings of several works, it’s a very good introduction to Carter’s music of the last 20 years or so, and not least, it includes the first recording of Mosaic (2005, harp and mixed ensemble), one of Carter’s most colorful and directly approachable scores.

The composer’s latestyle is characterized by a stronger emphasis on instrumental color for its own expressive value and relative textural clarity (which in many pieces goes hand-in-hand with the emphasis on color). These traits are presented in a new (for Carter) structural looseness that is often manifest in collage-like forms made up of short, overlapping episodes of contrasting music.

“Gorgeous” is not a word one often associates with Carter, but it applies to Mosaic. The solo harp part, played here with great style and flair by Erica Goodman, swoops and dances voluptuously over the range of the instrument. The accompanying ensemble sings and rasps its support and commentary.

The bulk of the program consists of new performances of a handful of the character pieces that are a staple of Carter’s recent career. These are the second (and sometimes third or fourth) recordings of these pieces, which are becoming standard repertoire for their instruments, at least amongst a certain type of performer.

The disc closes with a bright and lively reading of Dialogues (2004, piano and chamber orchestra) another exemplar of the composer’s late approach. David Swan gives a deft and expressive performance of the daunting solo part, and Robert Aitken leads a strong reading by the New Music Concerts Ensemble.

The bonus DVD includes film versions of the performances of Mosaic and Dialogues, as well as a post-concert interview of the composer conducted by Mr. Aitken…valuable in that they show the under-commented-on physicality of Carter performance. The interview includes some of Carter’s more familiar ideas, and is valuable for the newbie in that respect.

Pamela Margles
The WholeNote, March 2009

This CD/DVD set of late works is a standout. It was recorded live in Toronto in 2006 at two concerts given by New Music Concerts. The most significant works are the two beautifully performed ensemble pieces, Dialogues and Mosaic, both presented in audio and video formats. But what particularly draw me on this disc are the virtuosic pieces for solo instruments, especially the exquisite wind pieces. The jazzy, playful Steep Steps is performed with remarkable versatility by the lone non-Canadian performer, American bass-clarinettist Virgil Blackwell, the dedicatee of the piece. In Gra clarinettist Max Christie shapes contrasting layers into a single eloquent voice. Scrivo in Vento, written for New Music Concerts artistic director, flutist Robert Aitken, provides an intense, expressive exploration of the instrument.

I especially enjoyed Aitken’s pre-concert interview with Carter on the DVD. You can feel the affectionate relationship between these two long-time friends. Carter is genial, witty, and brilliant—and quite mischievous. Aitken handles him deftly, but Carter doesn’t make his job easy. Asked about the genesis of a piece, he says, “I’m interested in the music—I’m not interested in where it came from.”
Superb recorded sound, exemplary booklet notes, and snazzy camera work contribute to a terrific set, not just for Carter aficionados but for those wanting to know more about the music of our time.

Allen Gimbel
American Record Guide, March 2009

This Elliott Carter 100th Anniversary Release is 10 pieces, some (four) recorded in concert (no applause) in Toronto or in a cavernous Toronto church (St George the Martyr), 2006–2007, with a DVD interview with the composer and video of performances of the two major pieces, which are first recordings…The DVD contains an interview with Carter, with a few video excerpts of the short pieces and complete performances of Mosaic and Dialogues…The then-97-year-old composer is sharp and disarming in front of the concert audience, patiently answering questions (some of them read) from Aitken, and making a good case for how to approach his notoriously difficult music. (“I hate to have all those musicians sitting around not doing anything” and “My music consists of fragments of themes rather than ‘themes’” are all you need to know about his notions of counterpoint and linear material.) Aitken’s brief introduction underlines Carter’s obsessive attention to detail, while the composer seems to particularly enjoy discussing Rabelais, Proust, and life in his beloved New York City. Important topics include compositional freedom, performance accuracy, and his inspiring insistence on writing music every day. He comes across as both intimidating and affable, authoritative and kindly, someone you would love to discuss things with. (I never had the chance to get to know him, though he did sit on my juries at Juilliard in the early 80s. He doesn’t seem to have changed much since then.)…You will need this if you want the two bigger pieces…If you want to spend a little time getting to know Carter, get this for the video.

Elissa Poole
The Globe and Mail, February 2009

We often think in terms of landscapes when we talk about new music, but several of these pieces by American modernist Elliott Carter seem more like atmospheres than landscapes. Perhaps that's not surprising: Carter wrote the larger works only a few years shy of his 100th birthday, a time of life when one looks beyond and above the horizon. Carter's music has lost none of its resplendence as he ages: Witness the breathtaking Mosaic for solo harp and seven instruments, exquisitely performed by harpist Erica Goodman; and the Enchanted Preludes for flute and cello—composed at the young age of 80!

David Denton
David's Review Corner, January 2009

Last year Elliott Carter, the grandfather of America’s cutting edge musical modernity, reached his 100th birthday, this disc being issued to mark that milestone. Unswervingly his life has been devoted to the concept of atonality, and he leaves to future generations his concept of abstract music. “Each new piece is a crisis in my life”, he has written, but he has never looked backwards, always attempting to press music into new directions. A young studied at Harvard, he moved to Paris to work with Nadia Boulanger, but returned to the States without a developed musical objective. It was to take some years before he found that personal voice, often taking years before a projected work came to fruition. As he grew older he became increasingly productive, one of his most active period coming when already turned seventy. Regular readers will know of my difficulty in coming to terms with his style, but much of this disc of chamber and instrumental music—written since he was 80—I have much enjoyed. The first and second Figment takes the solo cello into unchartered and fascinating territory while remaining within the confines of traditional sound. Mosaic and Dialogues for mixed ensembles are the two most extensive scores and offer unusual sound spectrums as if looking into a musical kaleidoscope. They surround eight tracks of shorter pieces including the highly attractive Gra (meaning ‘play’ in Polish) for solo clarinet, and for flute and cello the intriguing Enchanted Preludes. The recorded sound is overly reverberant for the two ensemble works, but elsewhere is good, and the playing of the New Music Concerts Ensemble, mostly derived from leading Canadian orchestras, is most persuasive. If the attached composer’s ‘live’ interview DVD, made when Carter was 97, is not one for frequent repetition, it is a nice souvenir of the composer and it comes with the CD.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group