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Elliott Carter comes to Aldeburgh [Jun. 22nd, 2009|05:38 pm]
Michael Church
What makes a man approaching his 101st birthday fly the Atlantic, and penetrate the remotest reaches of Suffolk? "You can’t keep a composer away from his music," explains a smiling Elliott Carter, in Aldeburgh to witness a blizzard of his works in performance - plus the unveiling of a new one - and beginning his stay with a public interview with pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, in which he proves that chronological time is irrelevant, and you’re only as old as you feel you are.

What’s fascinating about Carter is the way he didn’t find his voice until he was seventy. "I’m a fanatic," he tells us, in the airy new Britten Studio. "I wouldn’t be happy unless I was writing music, trying to do things I haven’t done before." He talks of the pleasure of finding that voice, and using it to explore the layering of time, which is something (pace Proust) which music does better than words. And it’s piquant to hear this arch-modernist declare that his polyphonic experiments picked up where the Elizabethan madrigalists had left off.

Aimard feeds cues to bring out Carter’s blunt and forceful character. "How else could you do it?" the composer snaps, when complimented on his freewheeling ability to follow his muse. He recalls hobnobbing with Charles Ives in the Twenties, and composing alongside Poulenc in the Thirties, but rejoices in not having to pay any attention to what other people are doing any more. And what he’s doing is like research science: "What bugs me about Schoenberg is the way he’s not sensitive to the vertical sound. I decided to focus primarily on the harmonic structure of my pieces. Let me show you." Shoving Aimard aside, he puts his hands to the keyboard, to reveal a touch still fresh and firm. Aimard then announces his intention of playing a series of Carter’s works. ‘I hope I like them!’ he replies, whereupon we launch into a wonderfully unorthodox concert.

First come two of his "tribute" pieces: the first shaped by oblique intervals tethered by a sequence of chords as though planted in the earth, the second with three- and four-note patterns running rings round each other, which Carter aptly described as being "like a sprinkling of notes, a drizzle of sound". "They’re not as bad as I thought," he comments drily as Aimard spins his way through yet more polyphonies; what they have in common is clarity, expressiveness, economy, and a QED-type resolution at the end which is extraordinarily deft. This music may be austere, but it’s surprisingly welcoming to the ear.

Later in the day we hear Tamara Stefanovich, Aimard’s recording partner, play "Matribute", one of the Carter pieces which Aimard had played, and the difference is instructive. She has an excellent technique, but doesn’t dig into the keys the way Aimard does, and the loss of emphasis leaves the piece sounding rather ordinary. Moreover, she doesn’t quite bring off Carter’s "Catenaires", described by the composer as "a fast one-line piece, a continuous chain of notes", in which, with both hands working furiously, agitated swarms of ideas must mysteriously give the impression of relaxed repose. When Aimard plays this, the trick works beautifully. On the other hand, by juxtaposing Carter with a Haydn sonata and Bartok’s ‘14 Bagatelles’, Stefanovich shows how close his pianistic world-view is to theirs.

This is Aimard’s first year as artistic director at Aldeburgh, and he’s making a good fist of it, with a strategy he describes as "blocks of events". Thus the first weekend gave us a feast of Birtwistle and allied composers, with "Harrison’s Clocks" and Ligeti’s "Poeme symphonique" for 100 metronomes providing chic ballast for Birtwistle’s latest reworking of the Orpheus myth in "The Corridor", and for "Semper Dowland", this being Birtwistle’s rumination on John Dowland’s ‘Lachrymae’ for tenor and chamber orchestra. The second weekend brings - in addition to a lovely performance of unadulterated Dowland by Mark Padmore with lutenist Elizabeth Kenny - a collection of works broadly inhabiting the same sound-world as Carter’s, from which George Benjamin’s "Duet for Piano and Orchestra", written for and premiered by Aimard, stands out. After his long march in Boulez’s shadow, this no-longer-young British composer has at last found his own voice, and it’s marvellously eloquent.

Carter’s own new work, "On Conversing with Paradise", is an 11-minute setting of some fragments of Ezra Pound which express the poet’s despair at not having written the perfect poem. Under Oliver Knussen’s incisive baton, baritone Leigh Melrose and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group evokes a timelessly simple and savage world which makes the Maltings rafters ring. Modal rather than tonal, and grounded in thudding and throbbing percussion, it delineates a view of heaven (as seen from hell) with unassailable authority.

There are always felicitous surprises in Aldeburgh: one of this year’s comes as I walk past the parish church, with the bells summoning the grey-headed faithful to Matins. Eight bells, sounding in constantly-varying permutation: Ligeti might have written it, and Britten will certainly have loved it. Some old things are forever new.

Radio 3’s Hear and Now will broadcast these and other Aldeburgh events on July 11 and 18.

Photos courtesy of www.aldeburgh.co.uk.