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Morton FELDMAN (1926-1987)
For Christian Wolff (1986) [177:13]
California EAR Unit: Dorothy Stone (flute); Vicki Ray (piano, celesta)
rec. 1-4 November 2005, Architecture, USA
BRIDGE 9279 A/C [3 CDs: 177:13]


Experience Classicsonline

Listening to one of Morton Feldman’s later works requires perseverance. While some of the long piano works fit on a single CD, some of his other compositions, such as this one, For Christian Wolff, cover several discs. At just under three hours, this is brief compared to the Second String Quartet (nearly 6 hours), but it remains one of the handful of works that Feldman composed that daunt both performers and listeners.

With very simple melodic phrases from the instruments - here a single flute and piano or celesta - this work, like much of Feldman’s music seems to go nowhere. Listeners with short attention spans are advised to steer clear of this type of minimalism and stick with the safer composers, such as Steve Reich, Philip Glass or John Adams. But those who stick it out, who sit for three hours listening patiently, may find themselves rewarded. 

Listening to a long Feldman work is like walking toward a distant mountain, or like making bread and patiently waiting for it to rise. Things happen, but slowly: phrases repeat, then change slightly, then return, then change again. There is no obvious structure; there are many close intervals; the two instruments seem to be playing independently. Then, suddenly, a phrase happens that seems to be just right, that fits in perfectly with your state of mind. Then the music continues, suddenly making sense. 

It’s hard to discuss the actual performance of a work like this. Since this is the only currently available recording. I have nothing in my vast Feldman collection to compare it to. While the musicians perform without the rigidity that may occur in this type of music, the recording itself is an issue. Much of Feldman’s later music is to be performed very softly. I have no idea if this should be the case, but this piece is recorded at a very high volume. After ripping these discs, I looked at them in a waveform editor, and found that the music is about the maximum volume possible. I found myself having to turn down my stereo, not only because the music is loud, but because the sound itself is very “in your face”, and lacking in spaciousness. The subtlety that is often present in Feldman’s music seems to be betrayed by this close recording, which makes the instruments sound harsh, bordering on distorted at times. 

Nevertheless, for fans of Feldman’s work, this is a must-have recording. It’s a monumental work, that stands alongside Feldman’s other magnum opuses, his second string quartet, and the four-hour For Philip Guston (1984) (BRIDGE 9078A/D). If you’re not familiar with Feldman’s music, this might not be the best place to start; one of his long piano works, such as Triadic Memories or For Bunita Marcus, might be a better first disc. But if you like Feldman, you’ll want to grab this set immediately.

Kirk McElhearn



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