Although Elliott Carter had at least some facility at the piano himself, the famously centenarian composer did not compose at the keyboard or pass through a piano sketch phase to reach the final version of most of his works. In the fine liner essay to this reference recording of Elliott Carter's piano works, Bayan Northcott observes that "until his 86th year, [Carter's] published catalogue for solo piano comprised just two scores: the Sonata for Piano (1945-46) and Night Fantasies (1980)." The lion's share of this Carter centenary disc, recorded by the pianist and champion of contemporary music Ursula Oppens, is devoted to those two works, which represent the two poles of Carter's compositional development.
E. Carter, Complete [Solo] Piano Music
(released on October 14, 2008)
Cedille CDR 90000 108
Oppens turns in a masterful reading of the sonata, if still not supplanting the unparalleled version by Charles Rosen. We were lucky enough to hear Rosen play the work live at La Maison Française a few years ago, the best way to experience this music, because the fragile overtone effects are difficult to capture in recording. Night Fantasies was commissioned by Oppens, Paul Jacobs, Gilbert Kalish, and Charles Rosen, and the latter has called it "the most significant new contribution to the repertoire of transcendental pianism since Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit." Where the piano sonata is the last gasp of Carter's Boulanger-esque neoclassical style, Night Fantasies marked a switch to much greater rhythmic and harmonic complexity. Oppens was the one who had to premiere the work in 1980, and it is a good thing that she is able to receive audience booing in the best light -- she is an able ambassador for some blisteringly difficult writing.
The music on the rest of the disc consists of short character pieces from the last two decades. Oppens has included two world premiere tracks: Matribute, from 2007, and Caténaires, from 2006. The latter is the most successful miniature Carter has composed for the piano, at the tender age of 98, a Prokofiev-style moto perpetuo toccata of repeated notes and jabs of sound that served quite nicely as an encore for Pierre-Laurent Aimard's Shriver Hall recital last year. For these and the other works composed since 1999 (Retrouvailles, from 2000, Two Diversions, a piece for children from 1999 that we heard played by Jean-Marie Cottet at La Maison Française, and Intermittences, from 2006), Oppens supersedes the earlier Rosen disc in terms of its completeness. However, the final track of that 1997 disc, a conversation between Rosen and Carter, makes it still valuable for Carter completists (all five of you).
Take the chance to hear Ursula Oppens, joined by pianist Amy Briggs, when they perform with the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra for Mozart Dances, presented by the Mark Morris Dance Group (January 29 to 31) at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. The music includes two Mozart piano concertos (K. 413 and 595), as well as the D major sonata for two pianos (K. 448).