One has to hand it to Radio 3 that it remains willing to mount an event as demanding as this Elliott Carter weekend at the Barbican. For here was the still-active, 97-year old American master himself, as large - or rather, neat and genial - as life, to preside over a concentrated, near 70-year survey of his music.
And they rarely come more concentrated than the opening programme. The first of the short orchestral studies comprising Carter's Three Occasions (1986-9) may constitute an exhilarating jamboree of contending fanfares, but the second is a funeral oration for solo trombone over immense, totally chromatic chords, and the third an intricate time-machine in which long lines seem simultaneously to move forward yet revolve around some still centre. The BBC Symphony Orchestra responded intently to Oliver Knussen's definitive direction.
Next, by Carter's request, came the even more abrasive Connotations (1962) by his revered colleague Aaron Copland: a marmoreal 12-tone quasi-chaconne, seeming to evoke New York's vertiginous skyline in searing dissonances. Knussen could not wholly disguise the score's squareness of rhythm compared with Carter's volatility, but brought it to an awesomely grand culmination.
Yet the real challenge was Carter's Piano Concerto (1964-5). This is something of an extreme, even in his output, for textural complexity. He composed much of it on a Ford Foundation Residency in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, and, as the work unfolds, the individualistic piano seems increasingly menaced by the massing of dark orchestral forces, leading to a terrifying onslaught from which the piano just about emerges as its quiet self.
From the authority with which he characterised the scintillating early passage work, and panic-stricken later attempts of the piano to break free, one could hardly have guessed that the young virtuoso Nicholas Hodges had never played the work before; nor could one imagine the jungle-like textures more clearly defined than Knussen and the BBC SO contrived. As he took the stage to a standing ovation, the venerable composer certainly looked pleased enough.Reuse content