There may never be a more musicianly cellist than Fred Sherry, and Sherry's studio recording of Carter's cello sonata for Nonesuch (with Paul Jacobs on the piano) has every virtue a fine studio recording can have.
Alas, virtuous studio recordings are like virtuous women: respectable but not exciting.
So it was a bit of a shock for me to hear Nicholas Trygstad's scorching live performance. Trygstad, who is the principal of the Halle Orchestra, burned through the sonata with a Brahmsian passion; and the music - still indebted to the FDR-period Americana style of Harris, Schuman, and Copland - only benefited from Trygstad's approach. The audience seems to have gone completely wild at the end of the performance, with loud shouting and whistling of the kind I would expect to hear at a rock or jazz concert rather than at a recital of serious modernist music.
Carter's lovely short Figments also gain much from being heard in actual concert performances. Anita Leuzinger, who is currently the principal of Tonhalle-Orchestra Zurich under David Zinman, was the winner of the 2008 Naumburg Competition. Her splendid performance comes from the "Naumburg Foundation Presents" series of recitals by the competition's winners.
Vassilis Vavrareso's performance of Catenaires comes from the 2009 Van Cliburn Competition. The playing may not have the super-cool perfection of Sean Chen's performance from the Cleveland Competition, but, unlike Chen, Varvaresos generated a good deal of "heat of the moment" excitement.
No apologies needed for the quality of recorded sound, which ranges from good (Sonata) to splendid (Figments). No matter what the bitrate is, each of these live recordings is infinitely better-sounding than the two commercial studio recordings of Carter's music - both with Ursula Oppens - which I threw in the garbage today. One is a Cedille CD of the complete piano music, in which the piano tone has such a fake and unpleasant digital sheen that I could not endure it for more than a few minutes. The second is a Mode CD with two Piano Quintets whose shrill, glassy, and acidic sound simply defies description. I have no other recording of the quintets, but I will gladly live the rest of my life without this music if no better recording comes my way.
Now this is the place where the post should end with a brief, obscenity-laden homicidal fantasy in which the incompetent motherfuckers responsible for engineering these two commercial CDs are graphically removed from the ranks of the living. I hate to disappoint, but today I feel a bit tired for that.
So let them die of natural causes.