May 2004

Elliott Carter - Symphony No. 1, Piano Concerto, Holiday Overture
Mark Wait, piano; Nashville Symphony Orchestra; Kenneth Schermerhorn, conductor.
Naxos CD 8.559151
Released: 2004

by Rad Bennett

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment ***1/2

Having written music for eight decades, Elliot Carter is an eminent American composer. At 95, he is still actively composing. He is noted for concocting atonal music with incredibly complex rhythmic juxtapositions. This disc only presents one such piece, the Piano Concerto from 1965, written to honor Stravinsky’s 85th birthday. The other two-thirds of the CD are devoted to early works from Carter’s brief "populist" period, in which he wrote music somewhat similar to Copland's.

Even in these early works, one can hear the composer playing with rhythms and developing a chamber music style in his orchestration that allows soloists to play against the full orchestra. He was, at that time, also capable of writing wistful melodies of great grace, as evidenced in the second movement of the Symphony.

Under the expert guidance of Kenneth Schermerhorn, the Nashville Symphony has become a first-rate ensemble. Its superb principle players take to Carter’s music like ducks to water. The woodwind playing is exceptional, notably that of the principal bassoonist. The first trumpet and horn also earn honors, as do the lower strings, in solo and ensemble passages. The upper strings are the only weakness of this orchestra, sounding a bit scrawny and scrambling in rapid passages.

Carter’s music, as mentioned, is very complex. The Piano Concerto has a multitude of things going on at once, since the piano soloist is supported by a concertino group of solo instruments that is pitted against the full orchestra. Welcome, then, is the engineering work of producer Peter Newble and engineer Andrew Lang, both of K&A productions. This recording is singularly transparent. One feels that no detail is missed; yet, there is a feeling of ensemble sound and cohesiveness lacking in many multi-microphone jobs. Just a slight absence of presence has knocked the rating down.

This disc is part of Naxos American Classics series, a continuing compendium of the best music by American composers, both well and lesser known. Its first recordings were produced largely with foreign ensembles, but now that the Nashville is on board, a lot of sessions can be held in the U S. Most of the discs include a catalog leaflet of other titles in the series, and I highly recommend many of them. Other Nashville sessions have yielded outstanding recordings of music by Ives, Hanson, Griffes, Amy Beach, and Leonard Bernstein.