Review By Joe Milicia
Perhaps Cedille should have added "so far" at the end of their title — after all, Elliott Carter, who turned 100 on December 11, 2008, may have still more piano music in him, considering that the most recent piece on this CD dates from 2007. In combination, Carter's musical gifts, continuing output over a long career and sheer longevity are truly astonishing, and the CD serves as an excellent birthday tribute, performed by one of his leading interpreters.
Carter's output for the piano consists of two relatively long works — the 23-minute Piano Sonata of 1946 and the 20-minute fantasia Night Fantasies of 1980 — and a collection of short pieces, each from one to seven minutes in length, written between 1994 and the present. I've listed the pieces above in order of composition, but Cedille and presumably Ursula Oppens have chosen to start with a couple of short pieces, then Night Fantasies followed by more short works before turning to the Sonata and finally the Two Thoughts. It's a pleasing balance of varied moods and structures, and one result is to make the 60-year-old Sonata seem even more radically original and kin to works written almost just the other day.
Still, the listener might enjoy programming the CD to play the works in chronological order. Listening to the two-movement Sonata first, one hears echoes of Charles Ives and Aaron Copland (two friends and mentors of the young composer) and may detect such traditional patterns as a sonata form in the first movement and (easier to spot) a fugue in the second. One also has more of a sense of traditional tonality — though equally a sense of radical departure from the Western tradition. I cannot even begin to attempt an analysis of the musical games Carter plays, here and in the rest of his output, with rhythmic patterns and harmonics. Listeners to Carter's music tend to use words like quirky, mercurial, intricate, abrupt, impulsive. Carter himself, in describing Night Fantasies, calls it "a piano piece of continually changing moods, suggesting the fleeting thoughts and feelings that pass through the mind during a period of wakefulness at night." A "nocturnal evocation... is suddenly broken by a flighty series of short phrases." Other episodes "break in abruptly." In short, there is always in Carter's music a feeling of improvisation, with erratic flourishes, yet paradoxically also a sense of supreme control and total organization. It is challenging, often spikily modernistic, yet dazzling and inexhaustible.
The shorter works on the CD are mostly occasional pieces. 90+ was written in honor of his composer friend Goffredo Petrassi's 90th birthday, and contains 90 staccato notes (plus a coda) played slowly and steadily but partly hidden within a swirl of faster notes. The Two Diversions were written for a "Carnegie Hall Millennium Piano Book" and intended for student players. Retrouvailles ("Things Retrieved") was written for Pierre Boulez' 75th birthday and features a theme derived from the letters of the French composer's name. Two Thoughts about the Piano began as a single piece, Intermittences (the title from a chapter in Proust, "Intermittences du Coeur"), then was complemented by Caténaires, whose title is not translated by the generally excellent program notes by the British writer/composer Bayan Northcott, but a catenary is the shape a hanging chain makes, and this virtuoso piece is a four-minute chain of 16th notes. Finally, Matribute is a "Ma-Tribute": written for James Levine (a great promoter of Carter's music) as a birthday present for Levine's mother.Charles Rosen put out a "Complete Piano Works" of Carter on the Bridge label in 1997, but it included only the first three works listed at the top. A 2005 recording by Winston Choi, a student of Oppens, on L'Empreinte Digitale, contains the first five. I have not made direct comparisons with these, or other versions of the Sonata and Night Fantasies, but Oppens certainly plays with clarity and force, and her reputation as a performer of Carter is unsurpassed. (She was one of four pianists who jointly commissioned Night Fantasies.) Cedille's recorded sound is superb: the piano is marvelously realistic, never clangy or unduly marmoreal, but full of subtle character.