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Morton FELDMAN (1926-1987)
The Late Piano Works Vol.1
Triadic Memories (1981) [80:44]
Steffen Schleiermacher (piano)
rec. 18 December 2007, location not given
MUSIKPRODUKTION DABRINGHAUS UND GRIMM MDG6131521-2 [80:46]
Experience Classicsonline

Steffen Schleiermacher’s discography for MDG is already quite substantial, and is now set to increase with an overview of the late piano works of Morton Feldman. It will be interesting to see what MDG consider to be ‘the late piano works’ since these are in fact very few – for solo piano at any rate. While over 80 minutes for a single work for solo piano might seem vast, most programme notes for this work point out that this is rather short in comparison with some of Feldman’s other works. The String Quartet No.2 for instance has an approximate duration of 5 hours, but this point conveniently forgets a fairly prolific of more conventionally proportioned output which spanned well over 40 years.
 
Feldman explained this later development as a rejection of ‘form’ as we usually understand it in music. “I’m not so much looking for a new form, I’d rather substitute the word scale or proportion.” One aspect of the “temporal landscape” Feldman began creating in the 1980s was his interest in 19th century Turkish carpets: “Music and the designs or repeated pattern in a rug have much in common.” With regard to duration, Feldman said, “Would you say that the Odyssey is too long?” Indeed, once the listener accepts the meaninglessness of something being ‘too long’, and begins to hear the clarity in the patterns which recur and develop in the music, then most of the problems in this work are removed; resulting in beautiful recordings such as this one, or some interesting concert experiences.
 
Like some of Feldman’s other more approachable works such as Rothko Chapel, Triadic Memories has a meditative quality. There is a great deal of inner intensity in the tonal relationships and intervals, but taken at a superficial level one can close one’s eyes and drift in a space shaped by ever changing musical patterns and lines. More than with works such as the String quartet, the bell-like sound of Schleiermacher’s touch and the purity of the piano tones conjure a sonic landscape which is easy on the ear.
 
This is part of the charm, and at the same time my only real criticism of this recording. Triadic Memories was jointly dedicated to Aki Takahashi and Roger Woodward, and it is Woodward’s 1991 Australian ABC Radio recording, released in Europe on the Etcetera label, which has been my reference since being a student. This is alas no longer available, but illustrates one of the pitfalls with the more recent release. Schleiermacher’s MDG recording is very distant in comparison to Woodward, which is fine, but all too swiftly brings about that somnolent effect which I am sure wasn’t Feldman’s real intention. With Woodward you get more contrast in terms of colour and timbre in the piano sound, more sense of the resonances mixing and becoming transformed inside the piano – much like the dissolving edges in the colour fields of a Mark Rothko painting. Schleiermacher’s playing is more regular and uniform, the technique superficially more secure than Woodward’s. This however also creates a more manufactured, mechanical effect. To be truly cruel, Schleiermacher’s carpet is a Chinese reproduction to Woodward’s imperfect and irregular, but more interesting handmade rug.
 
Having pushed the knife in as far as it will go I have to step back a little. Most of this criticism is indeed down to the recording, and it’s one of those ones where turning up the volume doesn’t help a great deal. The opening bars have a wide gap between a high treble and low bass, and this left hand feature is unfortunately indistinct – you can make out the notes, but it takes an effort. From 53:00 or so there are some passages of closely pitched sixteenth notes which also suffer from some of the acoustic effects in the recording – the ones just towards the top of the treble clef, D-flat, C, D, E-flat, seem to balloon annoyingly, though admittedly more so on my budget speakers than on my second-mortgage headphones. I usually appreciate MDG’s realistic sound perspectives, but in this case the ‘best seat in the house’ must already have been taken, and we’re quite a few rows too far back to hear all the detail. Stefan Schleiermaker’s playing is in fact highly accurate, and the approach he describes in the booklet notes are certainly laudable: “When playing Feldman it is vital to [ ] keep the sounds alive and to avoid mechanical symmetry by making use of subtle differentiation in rhythm as well as tone colour.” The score is filled with subtle antimetric rhythms, with quad- quint- and sextuplets spreading themselves like syrup leaking from a tin both within and over the barlines, the actual time signature being largely quite a straightforward 3/8, until further complexities turn up later on in the piece.
 
At over 80 minutes, this recording pushes the CD format pretty much to its limits, but one other disadvantage of this release is that the entire piece is delivered on one huge track with no further access points. As an alternative example, Marilyn Nonken’s recording on the Mode label has nine access points, and although like Roger Woodward’s, her CD release is unfortunately spread over two discs, her recording is also available on a DVD audio disc which solves this problem.
 
Summing up, this is a gorgeous performance of one of the 20th centuries’ seminal works for piano. If you want your Feldman merely to provide a soundtrack to your vast collection of ruminative abstract paintings then you won’t be much bothered by the woolly piano sound.
 
Critical students of the work may wish to be made aware that other versions are available: secretly I actually quite like it, but don’t tell anyone I said so.
 
Dominy Clements
 

 


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