Symphonia: Sum fluxae pretium spei; Clarinet Concerto

Elliott Carter

BBC Symphony (Oliver Knussen, cond.)

album cover

A Playful American Composer

Whenever Elliott Carter is on an orchestra's program, the percussion section can count on being busy: The American composer, born in 1908 and still working well into the twenty-first century, writes in grand contentious tussles, and he punctuates his thoughts with carefully timed clanks, pops, and rattles. Sometimes the percussion "plays along" with a melodic phrase, helping clarify its outline; early in the final movement of the Symphonia, when the strings finish a particularly beautiful sustain, Carter breaks the spell with a simple two-note tap on the woodblocks.

Carter's emphasis on percussion isn't unique—many twentieth-century composers of classical music used kettle drums and other toys from the orchestra's back row to emulate the clatter of the machine age. Carter's music is built on the juxtaposition of contrasting elements, the creation and dissipation of chaos. These two vivid pieces show that Carter doesn't rely on a "system" of rules or fixed devices—he simply sets up contrasts of tone and color and then writes little episodes, passages in which the initial juxtaposition leads somewhere terrifying, or wonderful. The final movement of the Symphonia is an excellent example of this: After four minutes of string reverie, there come birdcalls from the high winds, and rumbles from a marimba, and splashes of cymbal that nearly overtake everything else.

These pieces, along with his four string quartets (two of which earned Pulitzer Prizes), form the core of Carter's contribution, and follow the general trajectory of the New York–born composer's music. They begin with the most intense bursts of harmony and then settle down, a strategy one critic has described as Carter scaring off the faint of heart. Further, both the spry seven-movement clarinet piece and the Symphonia end with stunning effects, flourishes that seem to reward the listener for having made it through the audio land mines Carter has set.

Genre: Classical
Released: 1999, Deutsche Grammaphon
Key Tracks: Clarinet Concerto: Scherzando; Largo. Symphonia: Partita; Allegro Scorrevole.
Catalog Choice: The Four String Quartets/Duo for Violin and Piano, Juilliard String Quartet.
Next Stop: Alban Berg: Violin Concerto, Mark Kaplan, Budapest Festival Orchestra (Lawrence Foster, cond.)
After That: György Ligeti: Edition 1: String Quartets and Duets, Arditti String Quartet
Book Pages: 144–145

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#1 from Shane, Nashville, Tn - 12/21/2008 3:02

I am using Tom’s book to try and educate myself on classical music.  This recording is very “modern” and I can see how it could turn some classical purists off.  I feel it is a classical version of late period John Coltrane in that you don’t really know what will come next.  It’s not something you put on for background music.  It is meant to be listened to with full attention.  Check it out.

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