Olivier Messiaen at the Great Organ, in the South Gallery of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington, D.C., during a visit on March 16, 1972 (photo by George Tames)
Before that work, reserved for the second half, we were also treated to the observation of another 100th birthday, that of Elliott Carter, who has actually lived long enough to witness his own centenary on Thursday, with a big cake at Carnegie Hall. Alexis Descharmes is known for his devotion to contemporary composers, as his fine recordings of the complete works for cello by living composers, including Kaija Saariaho and Elliott Carter, have shown. He anchored this beautifully crafted set of Carter pieces, opening with the 1948 cello sonata, a work more in Carter's Nadia Boulanger-influenced neoclassical style. Like Matt Haimovitz, who played the piece a couple months ago here, Descharmes milked the lyrical cello line of the first movement, presented over a quasi-Baroque walking bass texture in the piano. The second movement was a light-hearted scherzo, with fizzy pizzicati and staccato touches in the piano, and the cello cantillation in the slow movement was fervent, although Descharmes's tone high on the A string sometimes wobbled wide of the mark.
Carter, Works for Cello, A. Descharmes
The more traditional sound was bookended by Carter's 1944 Elegy, arranged by Descharmes for the same instrumentation as Messiaen's Quatuor, the Coplandesque dewiness, bordering on the grotesquely lacrymose, forming a misty-eyed tribute to Carter. In between were five detailed miniatures for the players' respective solo instruments, all composed in the last decade of the 20th century. Descharmes has already proven himself at La Maison Française, but it was here that his colleagues showed their chops, especially Julien-Laferrière, whose rendition of Gra for solo clarinet, from 1993, was an encyclopedic game of textures, attacks, and melodic interest, with an exemplary tone that did not get shrill in the stratosphere. The overtone effects called for by Carter in this piece were ghostly.
The quartet's rendition of the Messiaen Quatuor fell on the short side of average timings, at 50 minutes with pauses in between. The tempo choices gave a cursory quality to some of the movements, especially seeming to cheat the eternity and immortality of Jesus (nos. 5 and 8), although the dissolve from fortissimo al niente at the end of the fifth movement was beautiful, like ice melting away under sudden heat. Time slowed but did not seem to cease, as it can in more extravagantly slow performances. The effect was worsened, surprisingly, by the slightly prosaic approach of Cottet to the many repeated chords in the piano part, which were skillfully voiced but often seemed too much like one another. Some of the most effective playing came in the first movement, Liturgie de crystal, where the sense of time being charted, separated, recombined came across in the flowing ostinato of piano chords and the disembodied sound of the sliding cello. As forecast in the Carter set, clarinetist Julien-Laferriere was the centerpiece, with breathtaking (-giving) control in the third movement’s notes that crescendo from nothing to crushing power. It was a performance with many good parts that did not quite add up to something great.
Anne Midgette, Elliott Carter at 100: His Candle Still Burns (Washington Post, December 15)
The inauguration of Barack Obama has scuttled the plans at La Maison Française to host François-Frédéric Guy playing the complete sonatas of Beethoven in January. However, he will be featured in their next concert -- just one -- on January 22.