High Numbers

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  November 16, 2006

Richard Pittman led a performance that emphasized the lyrical expansiveness but played down the slapstick humor of Carter’s exuberant Triple Duo (1982), perhaps the work that inaugurates his full-bodied late period. Carter says that he conceives of each instrument as a character; Neidich was the only performer who took him at his word.

The largest work on the program was A Mirror on Which To Dwell, Carter’s 1975 setting of six mysterious Elizabeth Bishop poems (he calls the piece “considerations about nature, love, and isolation”) — three reticent, ambiguous love poems alternating with poems about art, nature, and politics. (In “View of the Capitol from the Library of Congress,” Bishop tries to hear the Air Force Band, but the music seems to get caught in the trees; the poem, written in 1950, ends: “the gathered brasses want to go/boom-boom.”)

Carter’s setting is mysteriously shimmering and witty. Laura Ahlbeck (oboe) was a touching sandpiper, looking for “something, something, something” in the mist. The Bishop cycle needs a singer of exquisite lyric purity who also understands what the poems mean. The imaginative British soprano Jane Manning was at her best in pianissimo passages, where Pittman really restrained the ensemble (Carter insists in the score that the dynamics be adjusted around the vocal line, but Pittman didn’t always obey). Her voice sometimes wavered too tremulously or had to reach too high to convey the words clearly, and the poems really require a more American diction. Musica Viva’s first go at this work, in 1977, with the radiant, articulate soprano Diana Hoagland, remains the best performance I’ve heard. Seeing Karol Bennett in the audience made me desperate to hear her do it. (A follow-up Carter evening at the New England Conservatory took place too late to review in this issue.)

f Russell Sherman in Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto is one of the great things in music, and it sounded better than ever with the energetic and sympathetic support of Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic. The hymn-like Adagio had a special warmth and tenderness (after a bit of roughness in the ensemble string playing of the first movement), and the Finale a dancing upbeat lilt. I was struck this time by the utter conviction in Sherman’s playing of the rows of unharmonized single notes — the way he transforms mere notes into phrases and phrases into lines of thought. And by the exquisitely delicate high notes (I’m thinking of the mysteriously chiming march-like theme in the first movement) that somehow avoid any trace of preciosity.

Keeping to the military theme, Zander then chose a work he’s never played before: Carl Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony (Inextinguishable), composed between 1914 and 1916, his moving, powerful statement about the Great War. In the last of its four connected movements, two sets of timpani, from opposite sides of the stage, battle it out, with everyone else caught in the middle. It’s an unsettling work, full of unpredictable off-balance phrases and odd mixtures of color (mainly dark, but also transparent).

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