Morton Feldman: String Quartet
2; Flux Quartet;
Feldman Edition 6; Mode, 112.
Morton Feldman: Violin and
String Quartet; Peter Rundell - Violin, Pellegrini String quartet; Hat
Art, 2 - 137.
Michael Finnissy: Lost Lands;
Topologies; Metier, MSV CD 92050.
Michael Finnissy: This Church;
Richard Jackson, Jane Money,
Ixion ensemble, conducted by
the composer; Metier, MSV CD 92069.
Michael Finnissy: Etched Bright
with Sunlight; Nicolas Hodges - piano; Metronome, MET CD 1058.
Multiplicities: Recent Music
for Solo Flute; Nancy Rufer; Metier, MSV CD 92063.
Alwynne Pritchard: Invisible
Cities; Topologies; Metier, MSV CD 92040
Julia Usher: Sacred Physic;
Various Artists; Metier, MSV CD 92066.
Peter Maxwell Davies: Chamber
works, 1952 - 1987;
Guy Cowley - Clarinet, Ian
Pace - Piano, Kreutzer String Quartet; Metier, MSV CD 92055.
Gerhard Staebler: Complete
Piano Music; Paulo Alvares - Piano;
Metier, MSV CD 92075, a and
Walter Zimmermann: Beginner's
mind: Works for Piano;
Ian Pace - Piano; Metier, MSV
CD 92057, a and b.
Walter Zimmermann: Schatten
der Ideen, etc.; Ensemble Recherche; Mode,111.
Everything I wrote in my original review of Morton
Feldman's Second String Quartet still applies (1- see below).
In addition, it is testimony to the growing significance of the music
of Morton Feldman that alternative recordings of his oeuvre are appearing
with increasing frequency. This second recording of the Second String
Quartet is a further vindication of his compositions in general,
and this work in particular. It can hardly displace the historical importance
of the Ives Ensemble's pioneering version, but it offers a fascinating
The most obvious difference is that the new version
occupies five discs instead of four, lasting more than six, rather than
five hours. This is because the Flux Quartet have chosen to adopt the
slowest tempi sanctioned by the composer, and they place greater emphasis
on matters of detail, with particular attention to phrasing and expression.
As a result, their interpretation has greater variety than the Ives
Ensemble, and this aspect encourages concentrated listening.
However, as Christian Wolff observes in his introduction,
responses to such an extended score are predominantly subjective. Inevitably,
much depends on whether one chooses to listen to all or part of the
work at a single hearing. Nevertheless, although compact discs are well
suited to chamber music, they cannot capture the epic character of Feldman's
Quartet. In essence, it is a ritual, probably best appreciated at night,
thereby minimising outside interference. Yet whether one listens individually,
or in a group, it can hardly match a 'live' performance. The audience
may not have achieved the mystical state described by the players in
the liner notes, but they undoubtedly shared in a unique communal experience.
Still, concert performances are bound to be rare,
so, despite their limitations, both recordings are immensely valuable.
The Flux Quartet have benefited from the Ives Ensemble's original version,
and they deliver their extended interpretation with unwavering conviction.
Ideally, Feldman enthusiasts will probably want both recordings, but
those who have already invested in the Ives Ensemble discs need not
feel impelled to buy the new set. On the other hand, for those who have
yet to add the work to their collection, the Flux Quartet can be recommended
as slightly superior.
Finally, as US politicians persist in mindlessly
bullying the rest of the world, it is gratifying to reflect for a few
hours on a quieter, more intelligent and altogether more civilised aspect
of American culture.
The same sentiment applies to Violin and String
Quartet, written shortly before String Quartet II. It shares
the same harmonic language, but is a much shorter work, lasting a little
over two hours. However, it is much less varied, employing the same
texture throughout, thereby demanding even greater concentration from
players and listeners. Furthermore, the final pages are strangely inconclusive,
even by Feldman's standards. Nevertheless, Peter Rundell and the Pellegrini
Quartet ensure that it is a worthwhile addition to the Feldman discography.
The recording was originally announced some years ago, and may even
have appeared briefly. It is hoped it will remain longer in the catalogue
on this occasion.
Lost Lands and This Church are Metier's
latest Michael Finnissy offerings. They are very different in character,
and the latter might be regarded as a surprising project for an avant-garde
composer to undertake except that Finnissy has always, and rightly,
regarded himself as an all-round musician. The title, Lost Lands,
is taken from the longest, and most convincing of the seven items on
the disc. Otherwise, at least the first five items tend to confirm Michael
Finnissy's comment that "these pieces are recycled waste". They are
all virtuoso pieces, but they are either duos for oboe, oboe d'amour
or soprano saxophone with percussion, or short studies for solo oboe.
Moreover, much of the material is rather similar, so it is a distinct
relief when the oboe is joined by bassoon and pi for Keroiylu.
Lost Lands, for small ensemble, is more
ambitious in scale and content. It is not one of Finnissy's finest achievements,
but it merits close attention, not least in view of its Feldmanesque
qualities. It certainly goes some way to justifying this disc.
This Church was recorded at St. Mary de
Haura, New Shoreham, in February 2003, as part of the celebrations marking
the 900th anniversary of the church. It was designed as a
community event, and as such, illustrates Finnissy's versatility as
a composer: his willingness to write as enthusiastically for amateurs
as professionals, and his ability to combine ideas from the avant-garde
with simpler music in a more familiar style. The hour-long work, scored
for soprano, baritone, two narrators, chorus, organ and ensemble, is
divided into four sections, outlining the history of the church and
its neighbourhood through extracts from surviving documents. The music
is arranged in four cycles associated with the various vocal forces.
They are interspersed in accordance with the functions of the different
groups, but only the second cycle, for solo baritone, appears in all
four sections. Various styles are adopted, reflecting the different
traditions of Western European sacred music, so there are allusions
to the music that might have been heard in the church throughout its
history. Many composers have aspired to write for their local community,
but few have reached the level of conviction achieved by Finnissy in
Michael Finnissy's piano music is more consistent
in quality than his contributions to other genres. In addition to his
own advocacy, it has attracted many pianists, and has been well served
by recordings. His own performances have been matched by those of Ian
Pace, and now they have been joined by Nicolas Hodges' recent disc.
Finnissy's compositions draw on a variety of styles, and the fact that
Pace and Hodges play a wide range of new music makes them ideal interpreters.
Their approaches differ to some extent, but it will probably need their
combined efforts to encompass Finnissy's complete output for the piano.
Hodges' new disc has been thoughtfully planned.
Featuring items from different phases of Finnissy's career, it illustrates
different compositional methods, including original pieces, sometimes
using pre-existing material, as well as a variety of arrangements and
transcriptions. Above all, two substantial items from A History of
Photography in Sound are presented. These are not simply a foretaste
of Ian Pace's complete recording, but hopefully foreshadow an alternative
Instrumental virtuosity has always been a close
ally of radical composition, so Nancy Rufer's solo flute recital surveys
not only her contribution to the contemporary repertoire, but to new
music in general. She has concentrated on British and American composers,
most of whom are well known, though one or two may already be fading
from the scene. All the items are demanding, calling for a variety of
flutes, but such advanced playing techniques as multiphonics, or the
use of vocalisation, are comparatively rare.
Inevitably, there are suggestions of birdsong
and non-Western traditions. The exception is Brian Ferneyhough's highly
original Superscriptio, which may explain why it is the most
arresting of the nine pieces on offer. Still, the others are worthy
of attention, and listeners preferring challenging late-evening chamber
music to the ragbag that is Radio 3's Late Junction could well start
with this disc.
Alwynne Pritchard began her career primarily as
an exponent of small-scale music-theatre, but in recent years, her range
has expanded considerably. However, her modernist background still provides
the foundation of her creative imagination, so there is an element of
tension in works where she has attempted to broaden her style.
The Piano Quintet: Barbara Allen, is possibly
the most arresting item. The not particularly dissonant piano chords
are contrasted with, even complemented by, modernist writing for strings,
whose context avoids any suggestion of functionality. Likewise, the
somewhat histrionic vocal expressionism of Kit is heard against
a rather ethereal instrumental background. The shorter items, such as
Spring, for piano, or the two versions of Nostos ou Topos,
for guitar, are rather anonymous. The more extended pieces generally
lack the individuality of the Piano Quintet, though the experimental
character of Matrix, for violin, is worth noting. The disc concludes
with the ambitious Invisible Cities, for piano, echoing the initial
Spring, and giving the programme a measure of symmetry. It also
confirms Alwynne Pritchard's preoccupation with the piano.
Julia Usher is somewhat older than Alwynne Pritchard.
Her compositions are less radical in outlook, though possessing a certain
originality. She is not as well known, at least partly because of her
involvement in diverse activities: projects linking all the arts; music-therapy;
even music publishing. She also has a long-standing obsession with Shakespeare:
hence half the disc is devoted to Sacred Physic, her "mini opera"
in the form of a "dramatic madrigal", for soprano and ensemble. It is
based on Shakespeare's drama, in which King Pericles is finally re-united
with his daughter, Marina, whom he believed was drowned at sea. The
work is essentially cast as a sequence of variations, with the cello
A Reed in the Wind, for solo oboe, doubling
cor anglais, is even more specifically in variation form. It is ultimately
based on Western Wynde: a theme favoured by John Taverner and
other English renaissance composers, and the work was inspired by various
prevailing winds that influence different areas of the earth's surface.
The remainder of the disc comprises a piano piece
in memoriam Robert Sherlaw Johnson; some pieces for recorder and piano;
plus further vocal settings to texts by Blake and Shakespeare.
Many composers have cause to be extremely grateful
to metier sound and vision, but their latest disc, featuring the music
of Peter Maxwell Davies is probably their finest achievement to date.
It appears at a time when there is a dearth of Maxwell Davies recordings,
and presents some of his instrumental and chamber music from the 1950's
The disc contrasts the four Quartets Maxwell
Davies wrote before embarking on the Naxos cycle, with three
pieces for clarinet – two with piano. There are also the Five Pieces
for Piano, opus 2,which, together with the Clarinet Sonata
and the 1961 String Quartet, illustrate how closely Maxwell Davies
identified with the principles of post-war serialism during the first
phase of his career. The Quartet is one of the composer's finest
scores, and if any of the Naxos Quartets achieve a similar standard,
the cycle will be entirely justified. The Kreutzer's interpretation
is exemplary, and this recording can stand as a memorial to Goffredo
Petrassi - Maxwell Davies' main teacher - who died recently without
quite reaching a century.
Guy Cowley and Ian Pace provide an eruptive performance
of Hymnos, which is equally impressive. They almost elevate the
piece to the status of a major work, not least in view of Cowley's extraordinary
dynamic range even when employing 'advanced' instrumental techniques.
On the other hand, the two Little Quartets, from the 1980's,
are precisely what they claim to be. The style is also more predictable
than in Maxwell Davies' earlier output. Thus the radical transformation
his music underwent between the 1961 Quartet and Hymnos
has not been repeated subsequently. By any standards, this is an outstanding
disc and obviously highly recommended. Its importance can hardly be
Another significant development has been the start
of a series featuring German composers who have been somewhat neglected
in this country. Gerhard Staebler and Walter Zimmermann were born in
1949. They have been influenced by a variety of styles across the new
music spectrum, including the American experimental tradition; but their
responses have been very different. Nowhere is this more apparent than
in their piano music.
The piano was once the quintessential bourgeois
instrument, but as its domestic association has dwindled, it has regained
some of the potential for innovation which appealed to such pioneering
spirits as Beethoven and his immediate successors. Staebler and Zimmermann
are each represented by two-disc sets: the former played by Paulo Alvares,
a Brazilian resident in Cologne; the latter by the redoubtable Ian Pace.
Gerhard Staebler's piano music is probably not
as central to his output as that of Zimmermann. Most of it dates from
the 1990s, including the half-hour piece, Dali, which occupies
disc 1, and offers a good introduction to Staebler's style. The second
disc contains shorter items, but collectively, they can be regarded
as forming a single entity. Windows comprises five short pieces,
while three equally brief items are drawn from the series entitled Internet.
Many of Staebler's piano pieces also exist in
alternative versions. Some involve interpreting graphic notation, and
frequently include an element of improvisation. Extraneous sounds are
another important feature, emanating from radios, tape, or percussion.
In some instances, the pianist is also required to vocalise. Hence,
the range of sonorities is far greater than might be anticipated from
two discs of piano music.
On the other hand, the piano has always been central
to Walter Zimmermann's output, and his compositions for the instrument
usually reflect his most fundamental preoccupations: folk music; medieval
theology, particularly the writings of Meister Eckhart; ancient and
medieval philosophy; Zen Buddhism. Indeed, Zen Buddhism is central to
Beginner's Mind, which occupies disc 1. Moreover, Zimmermann
was drawn to Cage's output of the late 1940s, together with Satie, while
the prologue was inspired by Schubert, thereby establishing a link with
Staebler's Dali, whose composition involved filtering Schubert's
piano sonatas through a magic square.
Thus, Zimmermann filters his music through Zen
principles to clear the mind. The 45 pieces are divided into three groups
in accordance with Buddhist precepts, and the work is unified by recurring
motifs and simple melodies which have an hypnotic power. This is enhanced
by Ian Pace's curiously haunting vocal contributions during the latter
stages of the work.
The second disc comprises shorter items, though
Wistenwanderung and Abgeschiedenheit are substantial scores.
They are based on similar material, and similar compositional procedures,
yet are very different in character. Abgeschiedenheit, - the
fourth work in the cycle, Vom Nussen des Lassens, inspired by
Meister Eckhart - is contemplative, in accordance with Eckhart's injunction,
"begin by freeing yourself from yourself". Wistenwanderung, partly
modelled on Plato's concept of the seven stages in the evolution of
the world's soul, is altogether more dramatic.
Finally, Wanda Landowska's Lost Instruments,
for midi harpsichord and piano, is one of Zimmermann's more recent pieces.
It uses a technique originally developed in Lokale Musik, whereby pre-existing
material is systematically transformed. All the music was associated
with Landowska, and at the premiere, was heard alongside the projection
of images documenting the loss of instruments, manuscripts, etc. to
the Nazis during the occupation of France. In short, these two discs
reveal not only the compositional range of Zimmermann's piano music,
but also the wide variety of sources from which he has drawn inspiration.
The same applies to Zimmermann's extensive output
of chamber music, from which Ensemble Recherche have selected four works,
dating from the mid 1990s. As a result, this is not simply a 'portrait
disc', but a detailed study of a specific phase in his career. Morton
Feldman is frequently cited as an obvious influence, but whereas Feldman's
compositional procedures and his preoccupation with metaphysical issues
stemmed partly from his involvement with the visual arts, notably abstract
expressionism, Zimmermann has remained steadfastly Central European
in outlook. Accordingly, none of the pieces is very long; goal orientation
is avoided; and there is a definite impression that the music could
continue for a long time.
Distentio, for string trio, from the cycle,
About Time, is the longest, but also the most concentrated item
on the disc, and probably the best. In keeping with the Confessions
of St. Augustine, it is meditative in character. Likewise, Schatten
der Ideen 2, for piano quartet, had its origins in the philosophical
writings of Giordano Bruno, whose speculations gave rise to a constantly
changing interplay between piano and strings.
The remaining pieces are hardly less rewarding.
Taken together with the recording of Zimmermann's piano music, this
disc offers a good opportunity to re-evaluate a composer whose achievement
has not been adequately recognised.
- John Warnaby: Extended Feldman; Tempo No. 220,
April 2002, pages 53 - 54.
© John Warnaby, 2003