Classical: As pioneering as you can get

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The Independent Culture
ELLIOTT CARTER

BARBICAN

LONDON

'S 90th birthday falls on 11 December, but the Barbican celebrated it on Saturday evening; and, from the appearance of the composer, it didn't seem they were tempting fate by being premature. Though the prospect of octogenarian composers is almost a modern commonplace, Carter remains exceptional for both physical and intellectual vigour. Those genes are worth posterity's attention, never mind the music.

As it was, the notes were the focus for a large and receptive audience for the London Symphony Orchestra, and in the first half of the concert, for the Arditti String Quartet, who played the composer's Fifth Quartet, and, with pianist Ursula Oppens, his recent Piano Quintet. The evening was billed as part of the "American Pioneers" series; and these chamber pieces are as pioneering as you get these days. Analogies with human discourse lie behind many of Carter's finest scores. The Fifth Quartet, however, takes the idea of discourse further: to the dialogue of players in rehearsal, trying out fragments of musical things to come, but in no particular order.

So the piece, by a kind of sleight of hand, is its own mirror image in performance and rehearsal, theoretically a fearsome prospect but in practice achieved with grace and wit. True, the sombre opening gestures of solo strings implied some weighty argument to follow. But this only enhanced the later pleasure of finding the composer in almost skittish mood. The Ardittis played with dedicated understanding, and in the London premiere of the Piano Quintet, refined their powers to let Oppens exploit a spasmodically virtuosic piano part that began in its opening pages from the premise of a single tone.

Here, it was role reversal that seemed the operative analogy. From having next to nothing to say, merely uttering mild protests against arching lines of polyphony, the piano came to dominate. Matters, however, were never that easy, and the ending, a gesture that promised to begin the piece again, was reached less by consensus than by agreeing to disagree.

For Symphonia, the triptych assembled from orchestral pieces written during Carter's energetic eighties, conductor Oliver Knussen played up the LSO's resources for colour, not just the baying horns of the opening partita, but also the sepulchral tuba and double bassoon of the adagio tenebroso. The contrast between these points of darkness and the solo piccolo conclusion of the third and final movement, allegro scorrevole, was a kind of ascent, but not that of the usual blazing symphonic ending. Rather, the gossamer textures and deft impressionism of the third movement, flowing freely across the entire sound spectrum, engaged the enraptured ear. Even at 90, Carter retains his power to surprise, and to do so rather well.

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