i really like concerts devoted to a single composer. Regardless of how much pre-existing knowledge one may have, the opportunity always goes a long way toward, if not defining that composer’s music, then at least clarifying certain truths about it. This was definitely the case with the latest concert given by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group last Sunday in the city’s Town Hall, celebrating the music of US composer and longevity show-off, Elliott Carter. For myself, i would have to describe my contact with Carter’s work over the years as ‘light to intermittent’, and i admit that that’s partly of my own making. The reason is a simple one: pretty much every time i’ve listened to something of Carter’s i’ve felt kept at a distance, for reasons i’ve never been able adequately to fathom. So last Sunday’s concert was as good a time as any to grow a pair and indulge in a large-form encounter with his music. It worked: up to a point, everything became clear.
In hindsight, Two Thoughts about the Piano, composed in 2007 and performed on this occasion by guest pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, seems a perfect paradigm for the impression given by the whole concert, which was a divided one. The first movement, Intermittences, could hardly have sounded more composed, the result of a carefully worked-out and -through method or process. That’s hardly a problem of course – still less a fault – though Aimard’s sublime fleet fingerwork was nonetheless hardly able to inject much breath into the material. In fact, and this is a concomitant result of this aspect of Carter’s music, Aimard often appeared like an automaton, moving with the effortless ease that had come from extensive and subtle programming. Whereas the second movement, Caténaires (‘catenary’, a mathematical term denoting the way a chain hangs between two uneven points), could hardly have been more different: almost like a literal stream of inspiration, the progression from being formed in Aimard’s neurons to spilling from his fingers apparently almost instantaneous. It was genuinely thrilling, but the disjunct nature of the two movements was the most striking facet of the work.
Both the Double Trio (2011) and Epigrams (2012) bore a strong resemblance to Intermittences. In the case of the former, the way BCMG articulated the nature of the music’s inner relationships – the two trios (violin, trombone and percussion; trumpet, cello and piano) initially at obvious odds, leading to dramatic counterpoint and small-scale explosions of material – was deftly, intricately managed. But it was again hard not to see them as another group of automatons, though i should stress that this sense in no way prevented one from enjoying the piece. It’s just that the experience becomes more strange, even uncanny, the music less like interactions than the outworkings of a ‘theory of dialogue’. It’s a curious, fascinating effect, but i’m now sure that it’s this that personally keeps me at a distance from much of Carter’s music, due to the way it imparts on it a kind of ‘flat’ (implied? passive?) expressivity. Epigrams was largely the same, its twelve microscopic movements acting as bite-size impressions, each one like an idea of an idea. That weird sense of listening to a collection of performing robots was nowhere more apparent than here, though, again, there was something strangely engrossing about it.
However, it was definitely a concert of two halves. Two Controversies and a Conversation, conducted by CBSO music director Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla, was somewhere in between these extremes, with an involving, elastic sense of drama, where bullish, demonstrative displays were followed by music ostensibly wanting to keep itself under wraps. The work’s outbreaks of pointillism were superbly rendered, like gazing up close at the pixels of a digital image, qualified by periods of blah where all sense of detail was lost. But there was no equivocation in either Mosaic (2004) for chamber ensemble or Bariolage (1992) for solo harp. It’s stupidly hard to dissociate the harp from conjuring up the fantastical, but that association only made Mosaic more engagingly vivid. At times, the relationship of the harp with the rest of the ensemble was a contrasting one, soft elegance beside spiky, prosaic retorts. Later though, Carter turned it into something inspirational, instigating lovely lyrical episodes that the harp silently listened to. The resulting counterpoint was wondrous, like sentences of a single, lengthy argument chopped up and then played simultaneously. Bariolage was even more immediate and immersive, harpist Céline Saout somehow managing to reduce the huge Town Hall space to chamber-like proportions. Here, even stronger, was that same sensibility that pervaded Intermittences: this was seemingly unmediated music, neither Saout nor her harp the medium for a message but actively becoming the message, its delicate filigree delivered with a child-like playfulness that was simply stunningly beautiful.
BCMG have done more than most (more than anyone?) to share Elliott Carter’s music with UK audiences, and i’m sure i’m one of many people who found this excellent concert provided much greater clarity and certainty about his work. But it’s left me wondering: in general, is this music that one tends to admire or respect, but not love? Furthermore, do we admire it, at least in part, because we feel we ought to admire it? Personally speaking, i’d go so far as to say that my head was convinced; my heart? for now at least, not so much.