Naxos and Kenneth Schermerhon bring here together early and "mature" Carter or Carter become himself, and going from one to the other is jarring. Carter returned to the US in 1935 from his three years of studying in France with Nadia Boulanger, and discovered that American music during the Depression had "taken a new turn, toward a kind of populism which became the dominating tone of the entire musical life". So his Symphony No. 1 was written, in 1942, "in a deliberately restricted idiom - that is, an effort to produce [a work] that meant something to me as music and yet might, I hoped, be understandable to the general music public I was trying to reach..." (from the liner notes of the competing recording on CRI, Symphony 1 / Fire & Earth & Water & Air). In view of Carter's later stylistic evolution, I'm not sure what the Symphony meant to him as music (but certainly he didn't withdraw it from his catalog and destroyed it, as he did with most of his early compositions), but it sounds very much like the symphonies Copland or Harris composed in the same years. Incidentally, the Symphony was titled from the outset "Symphony No. 1"; "Symphony No. 2" never materialized. The closest Carter came was with his "Symphony of Three Orchestras" (1977, Symphony of 3 Orchestras) and "Symphonia: sum fluxae pretium spei" (Elliott Carter: Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei (1993-96) / Clarinet Concerto (1996) (20/21 series) - Oliver Knussen). The Holiday-Overture was composed in 1944 to celebrate the liberation of Paris, and it won a competition that should have insured a premiere with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, but its music director Serge Koussevitzy, though a member of the jury, never programmed it. One wonders why. There is nothing frightening about the music, no more than anything by Copland or Harris, which Koussevitzy conducted and recorded (Koussevitzky Conducts American Music. It is a boisterous, upbeat overture that could be an alternate Finale to the Symphony. The liner notes set some store on Carter's later claim that the Overture was his first composition "to use consciously the notion of simultaneously contrasting layers of musical activity, which characterizes most of my more recent work", and elaborate on the contradiction between the composition's "measures of common time" (it s a 4/4 throughout in a single tempo, with one measure of 5/4 towards the end) and the music's rhythmic syncopations. But no: the Overture is syncopated, that's all. Although the music isn't jazzy, its rhythmic syncopations are rooted in jazz, but there is nothing revolutionary or even path-beckoning about that. It is only a common process to create excitement, and it does. It also makes the music very "American" (American composers hadn't invented syncopations of course, but the widespread use of them does give the music that kind of unmistakable flavor). And, yes, there are moments of multiple layers, with scurrying figurations over long note-values, and so what? Such processes existed since at least Bach. Likewise in the Symphony's outer movements, Carter favors a rhythmic writing that contradicts the regular pulse of the measure, but this is nothing proper to him, you find those processes in the scherzos or menuettos of Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven. Not that I wish to disparage Carter here, just point out that there is nothing difficult or avant-garde or even anticipating avant-garde here. The music may come as a shock to those used to mature Carter and hoping to hear a harbinger of it; it should please amateurs of the "populist" Copland.
The 1965 Piano Concerto inhabits an entirely different universe, far far away, and it is the universe of the uncompromising "avant-garde" of the sixties, when music wasn't "noise", in that it was organized according to very strict principles, but certainly sounded like noise to an unprepared public, in that it eschewed any notion of "melodic appeal" (the succession of pitches wasn't determined out of any search for "beauty" or "appeal" in music's time-honored sense) or "rhythmic excitement" and, unlike the music of Ligeti and Penderecki from those years, didn't play either on the seduction of non-melodic timbral and sonic atmospheres. I consider myself very trained to 20th-century contemporary music, yet Carter's Concerto, like most of Babbitt's music, sounds to me like a caricature of "contemporary music": lots of notes, lots of sonic events erupting at every corner, but they all could have been determined at random, I'm not sure one would hear the difference (in fact there's a recording of Bernstein "conducting" the New York Philharmonic in four improvisations, and it sounds very much like this kind of avant-garde, Bernstein Century - Music of Our Time: Ligeti / Feldman / Denisov / Schuller / Messiaen).
I have other recordings of the Piano Concerto, by Ursula Oppens under Michael Gielen (two different ones, with the Cincinnati Symphony, Elliot Carter: Piano Concerto/Variations for Orchestra and the German Southwest Radio, Carter: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra / Concerto for Orchestra / Three Occasions), but frankly I am not interested in doing any comparative listening and assessment, it would be too much of an ordeal for too little reward. Maybe some day in a distant future, if I come across a cheap-selling score.
In the earlier compositions Schermerhorn offers readings that are serviceable rather than outstanding. Naxos' sonics are more lush and comfortable than those of CRI for the American Composer's Orchestra under Paul Dunkel (on two different CDs, the one mentioned above and, for the Holiday-Overture, Holiday Overture / Ste From Pocahontas / Syringa), but they also provide less instrumental impact. It goes together with readings that are more ample, laid-back and leisurely than Dunkel's (compare Schermerhorn's 10:00 / 11:26 / 7:18 in the Symphony to Dunkel's 8:07 / 10:17 / 6:36), eliciting, in the Symphony's first movement, a mood that is gentle and pastoral rather than dynamic and high-strung. If you think that the Copland similitude is paramount to these works, then you may consider that Schermerhorn has a point there. If you consider that rhythmic dynamism is paramount to early Carter, then it is permissible to consider that Schermerhon offers a distorted view (as seductive as it may seem), and that Dunkel is preferable. I think the latter. There is less contemplation and majesty, more passion in Dunkel's more animated tempo in the slow movement. Heard on its own Schermerhorn's Finale might seem fine, but you haven't heard what "vivacious" is until you've heard Dunkel, and the same comment applies to the Holiday-Overure.
The CRI CDs aren't ideal, since they dispatch onto two CDs what would have made the perfect content of one and the ideal presentation of "Carter before Carter": the Symphony, the Overture and the 1939 Pocahontas-Suite, the earliest orchestral work Carter kept at his catalog. And with that, you'll get your share of "contemporary music", with Francis Thorne's Symphony No. 5 (a lush, powerful and at times very romantic piece) and Nicolas Roussakis very atmospheric and evocative "Fire and Earth and Water and Air", and Carter's "Carteresque" Syringa. So the more coherent, all-Carter Naxos CD remains serviceable. But be aware that is provides what is probably a distorted view of the Symphony, too pastoral and Coplandesque, not dynamic and propulsive enough.