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Carter / Woolrich

Elliott Carter: ASKO Concerto

John Woolrich: Between the Hammer and the Anvil (wp)

Elliott Carter: Réflexions

Elliott Carter: Au Quai

Elliott Carter: Dialogues

London Sinfonietta, Oliver Knussen, conductor, John Orford, bassoon, Paul Silverthorne, viola, Nicolas Hodges, piano


Queen Elizabeth Hall, 28 January 2009


I wonder if I’m too cynical to get the most out of Carter? I appreciate his tremendous craft, but there’s a slightly synthetic nostalgia about his music that reminds me of fake Parisian cafés in New York. I’m always a little bit disappointed at how willingly he subscribes to the conventions of a past Europe.


Then again, as this succession of four recent pieces began to win me over, I began to hear a supreme confidence in this association with tradition, in the deliberate planting of every chord and the balancing of every timbre; it’s an assurance that feels American to me after all. The way in which florid solos, duos and small groups spin out of the clunking chords that scaffold the ASKO Concerto has a fluency that comes from complete confidence in one’s place within history. Réflexions, too, has a similar grounded certainty.


Music like this suits the swaggering Sinfonietta well. The duo of John Orford and Paul Silverthorne gave a springy performance of Au Quai, written for Knussen’s 50th birthday, and I started to see my way into Carter. The final piece, therefore, was the best for me. Dialogues is a stunning reinvention of the piano concerto set-up in which soloist and orchestra don’t so much share the musical space (and thereby divide it and diminish it), but equally and simultaneously command all of it, as though residing in parallel universes overlaid on one another. It’s hard to describe because none of the usual words for a concerto – complementation, confrontation, even dialogue – quite apply, but that’s Carter’s gift with this piece. Nicolas Hodges, a late replacement for the indisposed Rosemary Hardy who was due to sing In the Distances of Sleep, performed superbly, but it was the Sinfonietta’s braggadocio that really lifted it.


Woolrich’s Between the Hammer and the Anvil was Carteresque in its use of a confined collection of rhythms and harmonies, but it took fewer unexpected turns, preferring to squeeze and reshape itself with bulldog tenacity. It was most effective when sudden rests and spatial effects (in particular between the three percussionists placed at each point of the triangular staging) disturbed the rhythmic and timbral unity: here it stepped beyond its tightly controlled horizons, but for my money it wasn’t enough to justify the piece’s 25-minute length.


Tim Rutherford-Johnson