Morton Feldman’s star continues to rise in the years following his death
in 1987. His music confuses
some listeners, bores others, and challenges musicians with
the prospect of performing mammoth works - in some instances
running for five hours - that require utmost control and attention.
This release from the minute label OgreOgress
- so small they don’t give numbers to their releases - is a very important one for those who
enjoy Feldman’s music. We now have several works that have not
been recorded before.
One of these premier recordings is the opening [Sonata], composed in 1945
when Feldman was 19. It
is a student piece and the most outwardly conventional of the
works presented here, with three movements in fast/slow/fast
sequence. Some would liken the sound of this piece to
Bartók; for this reviewer, it calls up some of the Soviet
composers of the 1920s and 1930s such as Roslavets
The recording quality of this piece seems slightly muffled
on headphones, but has very good presence on a living room system.
The aesthetic of the recording suits the quiet later
works especially well, with the microphone placement somewhat
more distant than one would expect, allowing the ambience to
act as a diffusing gauze over the ensemble.
The very short second work on the first disc, [Piece] of 1950, is sounds
more like Feldman. The
two instruments, interacting as if only by chance, play through
their respective tones, the score bringing out many different
colorations from the violin: harmonics, pizzicati,
and bowed notes of widely varying pitch, as the piano plays
chords of abruptly changing volume.
Projection 4 and Extensions
1, the two following works, were written soon after [Piece],
and are cut from the same cloth.
The music here throws out spines; Feldman hasn’t yet
taken to his later style of constant ppp dynamics, but
over the course of these three pieces, one can see his development
toward that end. The
repetition or subtle colour changes of later Feldman are not
here, but his sound-world is unmistakeable.
The second piece from the Vertical Thoughts series, written
just over a decade later than the Projection series and Extensions, has the breathless sense of
suspension that marks much of Feldman’s later work.
Of the four pieces entitled The
Viola in my Life, only the third is scored for viola and
piano; the others are scored for the solo instrument with either
chamber ensemble or orchestra.
Here, the music, as well as the recording aesthetic,
has receded even further from the footlights. The random sense of pitches and the occasionally
confused sound has given way to a general motif of piano chords
separated by rests.
Feldman, as some may already know, developed a fascination for oriental
rugs, their patterns, their deviations, and this interest proved
a springboard to his ideas of repetition, with slight variation,
in the context of a larger — often much larger — work.
Named after a mythical carpet, Spring
of Chosroes is sparse, austere, contrasting with the image
of a carpet of great intricacy and richness, yet corresponding
in its subtly-varying repetition of motifs. Another find is
the late piece [Composition] for solo violin of 1984 and the
latest work presented in this release.
It begins with alternating single notes and double-stops
in a sort of breathing motif that the violinist carries throughout.
This is a work of cold and quiet beauty which Christina
Fong plays exceedingly well.
Of greatest interest to this reviewer are the two “For…” pieces that comprise
the second disc of this collection.
The first, For
Aaron Copland, composed in 1981 and the much longer (by
twelve times) For John Cage composed a year later, are haunting, bemusing, top-notch
Feldman. John Cage bears a certain comparison to the Piano and String Quartet of 1985, but is far more varied regarding
the repeated patterns and variation of motifs — Piano and String Quartet is a much more homogenous piece.
Fong has recorded several discs for OgreOgress
including further works by Feldman, as well as John Cage, Maria
de Alvear, and Alan Hovhaness. Her control is admirable, as is her wonderful
tone, which never wavers over the course of these demanding
works. This appears to be the only available release
that Paul Hersey has recorded and
he proves a sensitive pianist with careful attention to voicing
and balance. Regarding this release, reviewers online and
elsewhere have taken issue with the packaging of the discs. I rather like it on an aesthetic level, but
from a practical standpoint, the folded card stock with silicone
stubs to park the discs on doesn’t hold the recordings very
securely and is easily damaged.
In addition, the tracklisting is only printed on the discs themselves; if one
wants to know what is playing, one needs to eject the disc. The liner notes at times remind me of the overly
manic and adulatory words in a cult pamphlet I was handed on
the street in Chicago some years before.
For example, in reading that “there is a clarity ...
as had he set light loose in a hall of mirrors, as had he charged
the inherent order of randomness to work the uncertainty principle
of quantum mechanics into auditory beauty that is so close to
light that I sometimes believe it IS light; the sound of light;
the violin sawdust, the piano glass bead; LIGHT!” I can certainly
tell that the writer is excited, but this really tells a listener
little about the works being presented.
These shortcomings are of small concern in the overarching
scheme of things. This is a great collection of rare, early, and
late Feldman performed excellently.