Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Playing Carter with Charles Rosen

In November the University of Rochester Press will publish Variations on the Canon, a collection of essays by leading musicologists in honour of Charles Rosen’s 80th birthday. Covering a range of topics from Bach to Modernism, the book will also include a section on “Criticism and the Critic”, an essay by Rosen himself, and three tributes: from Pierre Boulez, Elliott Carter and Charles Mackerras, from which the following is extracted:

Although conducting the Chopin concertos with Charles was indeed a revelatory experience, for me, the greatest revelation of all was when we did the Elliott Carter Piano Concerto together in 1978. At that time I was Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Although one of the main functions of that orchestra is to play contemporary music, at that time my experience of twentieth-century music was limited to the styles of such composers as Britten, Shostakovich, Bartók, and Schoenberg. Thus, the immense complications of Carter’s Piano Concerto were for me rather daunting. However, Charles had already played the concerto several times in America and was able to steer us successfully through the very gruelling rehearsals, and especially rehearsals with the concertino, which plays such a crucial part in this work. When it came to rehearsals with the full complement of solo piano, concertino, and large symphony orchestra, I was quite nervous when Carter himself appeared. But Charles had as intimate an understanding of that charming man as he did of his cerebral but passionate music, and the composer seemed delighted with our efforts. The concert in the Festival Hall also included the Stravinsky Symphony in Three Movements and the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra, but it was the virtuosity and intellectual power that Charles Rosen brought to the Carter Piano Concerto that transformed it into the hit of the evening.

Later in the year we repeated that memorable concerto at a Prom. The number of rehearsals for the Proms is always fairly severely limited because of the huge number of concerts that the BBC Symphony Orchestra has to perform during that period. But with his extremely sympathetic attitude toward his concertino and the orchestra, Charles got us through, despite the fact that we had less than a quarter of the rehearsal time that we had originally had. Afterward, I remember the Prommers stamping their feet with the same enthusiasm as if it had been a concerto by Tchaikovsky.

Charles and I are approximately the same age, and I regard it as a privilege to have known and worked with him and, in fact, to have learned so much from his prolific writings and his charming conversations. Charles Rosen is one of the truly great musical minds of our time and a great virtuoso to boot.

Variations on the Canon is edited by Robert Curry, David Gable and Robert L. Marshall.

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