Any piece written by a composer past the age of 80 has a good chance of being his last. Which is why I am not inclined to hear a special 'farewell message' in Elliott Carter's Instances for Chamber Orchestra, his last orchestral composition completed a few months before he died, aged 103, in November 2012.
Still, one feature of Instances sets it apart from Carter's earlier orchestral works. Instead of a brief, deliberately perfunctory ending I've come to expect from this unsentimental composer, Instances ends with a 2-minute-long coda of unprecedented emotional openness, in which the slowly and regularly breathing strings use their dreamy, bittersweet harmonies to console a melancholy flute.
Even more remarkable than this coda is the fact that, no matter how hard I tried, I could hear neither its beauty nor its emotional significance in the wooden and lifeless studio recording made by the conductor Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony. These were revealed to me only yesterday when I came across my first live recording of Instances performed by the New York Philharmonic under Matthias Pintscher in June 2014. Talk about a happy New Year!