Carter: Steep Steps; Two Diversions; Oboe Quartet; Figment No. 1; Figment No. 2

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COMPOSERS: Carter
LABELS: Bridge
WORKS: Steep Steps; Two Diversions; Oboe Quartet; Figment No. 1; Figment No. 2
PERFORMER: Virgil Blackwell (bass clarinet), Charles Rosen, Jacob Greenberg (piano), Fred Sherry (cello), Maureen Gallagher (viola), Peter Kolkay (bassoon), Tony Arnold (soprano), Charles Neidich, Ayako Oshima (clarinet); Speculum Musicae
CATALOGUE NO: 9128
Perhaps we should cease to wonder at Elliott Carter’s continuing productivity into his mid-nineties and simply be thankful for what it is – an extraordinary, unstoppable flood of invention from one of the greatest composers of our age. The Bridge disc brings together nine works composed in the last nine years; all but two are celebratory miniatures of one kind or another, but they are mostly just the by-products from a much more massive creative engine that in the same period has also produced a series of major orchestral works, as well as a one-act opera.

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The significant pieces are the 2001 Oboe Quartet and the 1994 song cycle Of Challenge and of Love, settings of the poems of John Hollander. Both works have previously appeared on disc, played by the artists for whom they were written – Heinz Holliger in the case of the Quartet, the soprano Lucy Shelton in the songs – and those original interpretations are generally to be preferred to these. Holliger and his colleagues capture the lighter-than-air quality of Carter’s oboe- and string-writing more effortlessly than the members of Speculum Musicae, and are more airily recorded, while Shelton and pianist John Constable just outpoint Tony Arnold and Jacob Greenberg in the songs, with a little more responsiveness to Carter’s finely detailed nuances.

Among the miniatures, the wonderfully intimate Au quai for viola and bassoon (composed for Oliver Knussen’s 50th birthday) stands out, while the performances by Charles Rosen of the 1999 Two Diversions and Retrouvailles, composed the following year, update his survey of Carter’s piano music on an earlier volume in the Bridge series.

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But for all its intellectual clarity and unswerving commitment Rosen’s playing lacks the sheer élan and pianistic devilment and the warmly sympathetic sound that Winston Choi reveals in his survey of the same repertoire. Whether dealing with the neo-classical shapes that drive the 1946 Piano Sonata, or the far more fugitive imagery of the 1980 Night Fantasies, Choi takes their considerable technical and musical challenges superbly in his youthful stride. Andrew Clements