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Superb Performances

Ursula Oppens plays
Elliott Carter,
celebrated by

Cedille    CDR 90000 108

Oppens plays Carter - Elliott Carter at 100. © 2008 Cedille Records

Elliott Carter is 100 today, 11 December 2008, and although his solo piano output is small, the complete 71 minutes of it all in superb performances by Ursula Oppens is an important contribution to the celebrations -- not least because it reveals a thread of insuppressibly creative vigour in a relatively unexpected medium covering over sixty years. There are unmistakeable stylistic trademarks throughout the pieces, wit and austerity mixed with almost childlike playfulness, yet at the heart of every piece a precise framework and the skilful judgement of a master craftsman.

The earliest piece is the Piano Sonata of 1946, a work of great strength that takes its place chronologically aside sonatas by Copland and Barber, and follows the formidable Concord Sonata by his mentor and friend Charles Ives, completed in 1939. Not that there is any notable influence from any of these, for Carter has a clear voice of his own,

Listen -- Elliott Carter: Maestoso; Legato scorrevole (Piano Sonata)
(track 7, 0:53-2:38) © 2008 Cedille Records

a voice that is still resounding with the same sort of 'leggiero' technicalities in Matribute (literally a tribute to the 'Ma' of James Levine) written just last year!

Listen -- Elliott Carter: Matribute
(track 6, 0:55-1:34) © 2008 Cedille Records

The distance of 35 years between the Sonata and his next piano piece, Night Fantasies, a substantial 20-minute essay described by Charles Rosen as 'the most significant new contribution to the repertoire of transcendental pianism since Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit' brings about only a stronger austerity and a more deliberate intervention of that filigree skittishness that is so pianistically demanding, as in the closing pages of this monumental piece.

Listen -- Elliott Carter: Night Fantasies
(track 3, 18:53-19:48) © 2008 Cedille Records

After that there came miniatures for the piano. In 1994 the short piece 90+, showing the distinct refinement of the same lightness and wit, and written for the 90th birthday of Goffredo Petrassi who had become a close friend over the many years covering Carter's occasional residencies at the American Academy in Rome.

Listen -- Elliott Carter: 90+
(track 1, 3:36-4:53) © 2008 Cedille Records

Also included on this CD are Retrouvailles, written in 2000 for the 75th birthday of Pierre Boulez; Two Diversions written a year earlier designed, though somewhat ambitiously, for 'young pianists' with nimble fingers;

Listen -- Elliott Carter: II (Two Diversions)
(track 5, 0:00-0:52) © 2008 Cedille Records

and Two Thoughts About the Piano (2006), the second of which called Caténaires is a four-minute uninterrupted succession of semiquavers which spread themselves over the entire keyboard as a single line, breathlessly and eventually with subtle changes of touch and dynamic -- ironically, suggests the insert notes, for one who ninety years earlier hated practicing Chopin!

Listen -- Elliott Carter: Caténaires
(track 10, 0:00-1:10) © 2008 Cedille Records

Ursula Oppens has done us a great service with these performances, two titles of which are recorded for the first time (Matribute and Caténaires), not only by collecting the works in this single recital, but by devoting to them all such technical commitment and devotion.

Copyright © 11 December 2008 Patric Standford, Wakefield UK




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Record Box is Music & Vision's regular series of shorter CD reviews