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June 28, 2011 5:35 pm

Conversations, Aldeburgh Festival, Suffolk

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Growing old has had a benign effect on Elliott Carter. Once renowned for his fierce intellect and formidably complex style, the 102-year-old American composer has spent his later years learning the value of understatement. Over the past decade, each successive work has become shorter and more simple. But, as Conversations, his new seven-minute work for Aldeburgh, proves, short does not mean soft. Scored for solo piano and percussion with Mozart-size orchestra, it makes a pungent statement.

Conversations is a witty dialogue between solo instruments with much in common – the piano, after all, has percussive qualities – but represent different viewpoints about sound. In Carter’s scenario, the piano sets the pace and has the best music, but the percussion commands a wider palette and seems more exuberant, often putting the piano in the shade. When marimba or vibraphone calls the tune, the conversation sounds harmonious. When gongs or drums take their turn, the soloists seem at odds. As in any civilised argument, they refrain from interrupting each other. The piece reaches a humorous, single-note conclusion – and Carter pulls off another of his succinct musical metaphors for social interchange.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Colin Currie were spirited soloists with the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group under Oliver Knussen. The whole programme was a mosaic of sound and style, with three Stravinsky pieces (played by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra) rubbing shoulders with two by young British composers – notably Charlotte Bray’s Caught in Treetops for violin and small orchestra, a nocturnal rhapsody with plentiful ideas but a woolly structure. Alexandra Wood relished its Walton-esque reveries.

The previous evening was one of Aimard’s modernist extravaganzas – more an expression of artistic ideology than a digestible exercise in sound. It featured two electronically enhanced relics of ivory tower avant-gardism – Pierre Boulez’s . . . explosante-fixe . . . and Peter Eötvös’s Schiller: energische Schönheit, in demonstration performances by the London Sinfonietta under Eötvös. Next to such emotional aridity, it was a relief to hear a piece of real music – and snatches of melody – in Marco Stroppa’s From Needle’s Eye.

4 stars

Aldeburgh Festival

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