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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Concert Review: Carter's Complete Piano Music

The Piano Masters Series at the Boston Conservatory was host to Grammy nominated master pianist Ursula Oppens Tuesday evening in a program dedicated to the complete solo piano music of her long time friend and colleague - Elliott Carter.

Carter, who will turn 100 on December 11, 2008, has enjoyed numerous performances in his Centenary year (see my July 21st, 2008 posting about the Elliott Carter Celebration at Tanglewood).

Fortunately, Boston is a local stop on the tour of Ms. Oppens' recital program, which includes Symphony Space in NY and at San Francisco Performances on the West Coast. She was recently appointed to a position of Distinguished Professor at the Brooklyn College Conservatory of Music in her native New York.

Throughout her career Ms. Oppens has been a dedicated champion and staunch proponent of Carter's works. All of my adult life I've listened to her wonderful performances of Carter, including performances in the early 70's with the new music group Speculum Musicae (which she co-founded in 1971), the composer's Piano Concerto with the London Sinfonetta (at Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank circa 1984), and this past summer as harpsichord soloist in the Double Concerto at Tanglewood.

If you can't make it to one or her live performances, Oppens can be seen in a fascinating movie by Dutch director Frank Scheffer performing the Carter Piano Quintet. The film is available on DVD, and it clearly documents the vigor and intensity of her playing.

Oppens is a powerhouse in a broad range of piano repertory, but her over-riding preference to perform new music stems from a deep-seated commitment and personal obligation to express modernist works. If members of the general public could vote for future recipients of the National Medal of Art at the Kennedy Center awards in Washington DC, Oppens would head my list of recommended honorees.

The program at Boston Conservatory was centered around two of Carter's major works for the piano, with shorter pieces grouped together at the beginning and end of the concert. Oppens spoke briefly about each piece before hand, but maintained her concentration throughout a program which was comprised almost entirely of works that are known to be technically challenging - to say the least.

The first collection of short pieces on the concert featured 90+ (1994), Retrouvailles (2000), and Two Diversions (1999).

90+ is a short work written to celebrate the 90th birthday of his friend, Italian composer Gofredo Petrassi. It is built around a skeleton of more than 90 short accented notes, against which other musical gestures occur in a changing context. Ms. Oppens mentioned that the piece actually contains additional notes (hence the "+") as a wish of additional years to his friend.

Retrouvailles is another birthday piece, this time for Carter's friend composer-conductor Pierre Boulez. The work quotes from two previous pieces that he composed for Boulez's 60th and 70th birthdays and utilizes a motto associated with Boulez's name. Check out her 1/17/08 performance of Retrouvailles at Symphony Space on YouTube...

Two Diversions which is dedicated to Ursula Oppens "deals with a glowing contrast between simultaneous musical ideas."

The first Diversion is based on a line with paired notes that sound at a more or less constant pulse throughout (mm quarter = 40). But the context around that base pulse and harmonic progression of dyads changes (often using a rhythmic technique Carter invented called "metric modulation"). A melodic line accompanies the dyads - first in the bass register (starting with the initial low E-flat), and then gradually it moves to encompass the full expanse of the keyboard.

The second Diversion ups the ante by introducing a shifting pulse between two single voices played between the right and left hands. The general plan of the piece calls for the right hand to generally get faster (from mm=115 in measure 4 to mm=480 in measure 82). The left hand generally gets slower (from mm=108 to mm=20 in measure 82). Of course, as with all of Carter's music there are exceptions to the rule and additional layers of contrast and abstraction. The piece end with a long and B-natural held low in the bass by the left hand as the right hand plays a soft flourish in septuplets "as fast as possible" ending up high on B-flat.

Together, these Two Diversions serve as a good introduction to Carter for the casual listener as well as for upcoming gifted young pianists for which it was written to be played.

Carter's formative, 22-minute single movement work Night Fantasies (1980) was premiered by Oppens at the Bath Festival in England in June of 1980. This is a work that was uniquely commissioned by four pianists and friends of the composer: Paul Jacobs, Gilbert Kalish, Ursula Oppens, and Charles Rosen. Ms. Oppens explained that all four of them had individually asked Mr. Carter for a new piece, but nothing new for solo piano came from the composer pen since his Piano Sonata which had been completed back in 1946. They realized that Carter didn't want to hurt the feelings of any of them, so the pianists decided to commission him collectively for a new composition. The result was Night Fantasies, which the composer worked on from 1978 to 1980. It is amazing to hear how the composer's voice changed during the 34-year span between his Piano Sonata and Night Fantasies.

In the interest of full-disclosure, I must explain that I had a unique introduction to this work. When I was a composition fellow at the Yale-Norfolk Summer School of Music in 1981, Carter was one of the distinguished visiting composition instructors. Among the works he played for us was a recording of Night Fantasies. I was instantly amazed and dazzled by the piece, although the composer soon stopped playing the recording because he felt the speakers were distorting the sound. Carter did not talk about the mechanics of his composition, and it was not until I read the excellent article "The Composition of Elliott Carter's Night Fantasies" by John F. Link that I learned about some of the complex underpinnings of his piece. Dr. Link studied all of the notes and manuscripts for the work along with related sketches at the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel, Switzerland.

Without boring you with too much with the technical detail, Dr. Link writes..

Harmonically, Night Fantasies is based on a collection of twelve-note "all-interval" chords in which each of the twelve pitch classes and, between consecutive notes, each of the eleven intervals occurs exactly once. Carter treats these chords - each of which spans five and one-half octaves - as a repertoire of harmonic possibilities.

It is thought that Carter was introduced to the properties of these unique chords in a 1963 article by Stefan Bauer-Mengelberg and Melvin Ferentz titled "On Eleven-Interval Twelve-Tone Rows" in the music theory journal Perspectives of New Music.

The piano piece was composed from an initial set of fragments based on about 70 of these all-interval chords... "Then he simply pinned them to the wall of his studio and rearranged them until he found an ordering he liked." Gradually, about half of these chords were discarded, and new material was added to join and transition between them.

Before the world premiere of Night Fantasies, Ms. Oppens received the score from the composer in pieces, and the last third batch arrived by mail just a few weeks before the scheduled performance. She has performed the work many times, and with 28 years to perfect it, her performance last evening in Boston is still as riveting as ever.

Don't worry if you can't hear the interaction of the two large-scale pulse streams over the course of the 20 minute work. One pulse stream has accents every roughly every 5 1/2 seconds, and the other at an interval of about 7 seconds apart. The 216 to 175 polyrhythm only coincides twice during the piece: once at the down beat of measure three, and with the final note of the work in measure 516. Just knowing it is there makes you appreciate it. I'm not sure that I "buy" Carters' explanation that he was influenced by Robert Schumann in this work. He is very attached to his system.

Others have performed it as well, and I also like the Charles Rosen rendition which comes across as masterful, informed, and elegant. Pierre-Laurent Aimard recently recorded it, and he plays the piece with an entirely different sensibility than either Rosen or Oppens. Aimard takes some passages with a light and gentle touch, and is very literal with his execution of staccato notes.

After intermission, Oppens performed the classic Piano Sonata written just after World War II. Although Carter had written and published works going all the way back to the 1930's, it is said that the Sonata is perhaps his first mature work. When you consider that Carter was 38 years old when he wrote it, we might consider him to be a "late bloomer." Certainly it put his name on the map. But I am actually of the opinion that - as skillful and competent the Sonata is - it does not yet represent Carter's mature musical voice. To my mind he did not discover and perfect his musical language until a number of years later during the period of his First String Quartet in 1951.

The Piano Sonata is a romantic work, which bears a strong resemblance to other American neo-classic pieces being written in that era. Shades of Arthur Berger, Igor Stravinsky, Harold Shapero, and Aaron Copland come to mind. Clearly the influence of Nadia Boulanger (Carter's teacher) is evident throughout. And while the musical language straddles the line between classicism (exemplified by key signatures and a fugue) and modernism (with irregularly grouped spans of 15-note spans in subdivisions of 7+8, 5+5+5, and 5+4+6), there are some striking similarities between the Sonata and Night Fantasies.

Both the Piano Sonata and Night Fantasies exploit the piano for all of its capabilities. They are both about 22 minutes long, and contain some very fast and challenging passages. I would even venture to say that the Sonata is the more difficult of the two. Oppens played it with the same intensity that she is famous for, but also allowed herself to relax in the beautiful Andante "chorale" that opens the second movement and which peacefully concludes the work. But in the end I think the Sonata has significance as an early work by a great composer, not a great work in itself. I don't know how often it would be played today if it were written by someone unknown.

I also like the historic 1966 recording of the Sonata by Beveridge Webster, which I have on LP. I suspect that Ms. Oppens could have been influenced by his rendition since Webster was teaching at Juilliard when Oppens studied there for her Master's degree with Felix Galimir and Rosina Lhévinne.

The program ended with some quite recent works by Carter titled Two Thoughts About the Piano.

The first of these pieces is Intermittences (2005) which was inspired by a chapter of Marcel Proust's novel Intermittences du Coeur. The piece exploits textures, colors, changes its context frequently, and is pact full of contrasting ideas. Ms. Oppens explained that the work relies heavily on the sostenuto pedal to sustain selected notes.

The second piece Caténaires (2006) was the final composition on the printed recital program. It is a fascinating study in writing a virtuosic one-line piece for the piano. It is extremely fast, and uses different spacings, accents, and colorings to bring out connections between non-adjacent notes. I had to wonder whether Carter had been listening to E-Machines by David Rakowski, or other piano etudes by that composer. There were some interesting similarities - at least on the surface. As a sidebar, here is a YouTube video of E-Machines by Rakowski as performed by Jenny Chai...

For an encore Oppens explained that the advertised program of the "Complete Piano Music of Elliott Carter" was not entirely accurate. Carter continues to write more piano music, and has written several pieces for BSO conductor James Levine. The first of which is called Matribute. Matribute was written as birthday tribute for Levine's mother. While Levine did perform the premiere for a small group at Harvard last year (which I heard), Oppens had to be called in to perform the work at Tanglewood this past summer. Levine was unable to do so because of health issues.

The Complete Piano Music of Elliott Carter
Celebrating the Composer's 100th Birthday Year
Ursula Oppens, Piano
October 28th, 2008
Seully Hall
Boston Conservatory

Note that The Piano Masters Series at Boston Conservatory continues on December 2nd with the Boston-based pianist and novelist Janice Weber. It's not to be missed.