How nice to be able to wish centenarian composer Elliott Carter many happy returns, even if he's only present in a video interview. Here to do the honours were his friend Pierre Boulez (a sprightly 83) with his house band, Ensemble Intercontemporain, and his and Carter's pianist of choice, Pierre-Laurent Aimard.
Two years ago, I asked Carter how he composed. "It just starts to happen," he said. "I'm lying in bed, and suddenly a good idea comes, and I jump up and write it down." That, it seems, was how this evening's UK premiere, Catenaires, grew into a work at once dazzling and exquisite. Carter describes it as "a fast one-line piece, a continuous chain of notes". Both hands working furiously, Aimard delivered swarms of ideas which mysteriously gave the impression of relaxed repose. This formed a triptych with Matribute, in which a low, slow melody was pelted with staccato high notes like hailstones, and Intermittences, which sometimes held its breath, and sometimes broke into frantic garrulousness.
Carter's Clarinet Concerto, composed for the same musicians who now brought it to the South Bank, is a miracle of controlled exuberance. He places his instrumental colours in delicate dabs and washes, and lets his seven short movements segue into one another. On record, you wonder why he ends each movement on a loud passage, but hearing it live, you understand: this is to cover the fact that strings, brass, percussion and woodwind are arranged in separate groups, and the soloist must walk from group to group. There was a wonderful transparency in the performances of this and the night's other Carter work, Dialogues, in which piano and orchestra played a turbulent game.