Friday 12 December 2008

Carter Centenary Concert - Carter and Boulez, Aimard/Damiens/EIC/Boulez, 11 December 2008

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Carter – Dialogues
Carter – Matribute, for solo piano
Carter – Intermittences, for solo piano
Carter – Caténaires, for solo piano
Carter – Clarinet concerto
Boulez – Dérive II

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)
Alain Damiens (clarinet)
Ensemble Intercontemporain
Pierre Boulez (conductor)

Following the previous night’s Messiaen celebrations – in practice, at least as much a celebration of Boulez – the Ensemble Intercontemporain, its founder, and Pierre-Laurent Aimard moved on to Elliott Carter, for his hundred birthday. The astounding difference, or one of them, is of course that Carter is still with us – and still composing: unprecedented for one entering his eleventh decade.

Prior to the opening work, we saw a recorded interview with him, in which he was still very much the Carter of old, buoyed with enthusiasm for his most recent projects, including a clarinet quintet for Charles Neidich and the Juillard Quartet, and a flute concerto for Emmanuel Pahud. Carter poignantly expressed the hope that he might hear the latter, none of its first performances having taken place in America. Europe, he explained, has always been more receptive to his music, not least since broadcasting is not here – perhaps one should add, not solely – based upon the needs of advertising. If it is true, as Carter claimed, that he has more ‘friends’ in Europe than in his own land, we should consider that to be an honour. On the other hand, we should also consider how, in the words of Daniel Barenboim in one of several programme tributes, Carter ‘combines America with Europe’. This concert made a very good start.

Dialogues, a concertante piece for piano and ensemble, provided a glittering opening. Rather to my surprise, and despite Aimard’s predictably fine performance, I found much of the orchestral writing more compelling than the piano part – although perhaps this will change with greater acquaintance. As ever with Carter, there was an abundant sense of life, of joy. Poised midway between chamber and orchestral music, a work such as this is the lifeblood of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, whose performance could hardly be faulted.

With Matribute – ‘ma tribute’ – a short piece written for James Levine, to honour Levine’s mother, we reached the solo piano selection. I was taken with the contrast between melodic development, rising up through the keyboard’s octaves, and that characteristic Carter kinetic energy, both influencing each other and yet never quite merging. Intermittences and Caténaires were given what was described as the United Kingdom premiere of their joint existence as Two Thoughts about the Piano. If this were stretching a point somewhat, there was no need, since such fine piano writing needs no pretext for performance. It was, in any case, my first hearing of either piece. Aimard once again proved a spellbinding guide, though the silences (intermittences, as in Proust) and eruptions of the first piece. His fingers and feet – for here, pedalling is crucial, not least with regard to the middle pedal – were wholly at the service of the music and as communicative to the audience as one could imagine. The different ‘characters’ – always a key feature of Carter’s writing – were vividly portrayed, as was the more single-character nature of Caténaires. Its toccata-like single line spun if anything an even more gripping narrative, almost miraculously transforming the chordal instrument into a giant violin – solo Bach sprang to my mind – all the more to impress us with the variety of colours a single line can produce.

The Clarinet Concerto received an equally commanding interpretation. Commissioned by Boulez and the Ensemble Intercontemporain, and written with Alain Damiens in mind – he and they premiered the work in 1997 – one could hardly have wished for a more authoritative or, again, vivacious performance. The five sections of the orchestra each had their opportunities to shine, to interact, to project their ‘character’ or ‘characters’, and they took them. Damiens and Boulez not only held the work together – Damiens literally moving around the stage, to interact with each group – but appeared to engage in a dialogue of their own, reminding us that this is a concerto, with considerable ambiguity concerning the relationship between blend and battle when it comes to the soloist and other players. Once again, there was energetic game-playing aplenty, but there were also oases of calm, the harmonies of the string-based Largo section quite ravishing, and unerringly placed in terms of the dramatic game-plan.

Where the previous evening, Boulez had presented his sur Incises, here we had the revision, completed in 2006, of Dérive II. The work was now double the length of the previous time I had heard it. In many ways, it seems Janus-faced, connecting back to the SACHER-inspired works of the 1970s and 1980s, whilst also showcasing much of his more recent harmonic and structural development. As ever, the overwhelming sensation is of proliferation, in every aspect of the music. It was also striking how every instrument in the ensemble – eleven instrumentalists: woodwind, strings, and tuned percussion, including piano – was given ample opportunity to shine; it would be invidious to single out any one in particular, though I must mention the echoes of the Rite of Spring in the bassoon writing. One aspect that somewhat surprised me was how frankly thematic much of Boulez’s writing proved to be. In this, the expert performance of the EIC, under his direction, contributed a great deal. The oft-elusive ability to find an ending, most definitely achieved in sur Incises, was again displayed here: rhythmically exciting in the lead-up to its final, unanswerable unison.