Morton FELDMAN (1923-1987)
Crippled Symmetry (1983)
The Feldman Soloists
Edward Blum (flutes), Jan Williams (percussion),
Nils Vigeland (piano/celesta)
rec. live, 12 June 2000, UB Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY
FROZEN REEDS fr1/2 [44:10 + 44:47]
For connoisseurs of Morton Feldman this will be a significant release. In 2000, Eberhard Blum, Nils Vigeland, and Jan Williams reformed as The Feldman Soloists to perform Crippled Symmetry, the trio Feldman composed for them, on the 25th anniversary celebration of the festival Feldman founded. These aspects of the recording seem to make it an almost automatic reference for the work, and flautist Eberhard Blum writes, “This turned out to be one of the best performances that we had ever given together. The rare and indescribable ‘magic moment’ of occasion and ambience seems to have inspired us. The recording of the concert belongs to my most valued sound documents. When I listened to it for the first time, my immediate reaction was: this performance ought to be available on CD. Now, ten years later, it is.”
Presented in a card gatefold with its two discs in paper envelopes, this release is designed like a mini double-LP, with contemporary music nostalgia heightened by a moody cover photo and right down to an intrepid lack of lettering on the spine. Erhard Blum’s notes inside are usefully comprehensive and full of first-hand details.
Crippled Symmetry is, relatively speaking, one of Morton Feldman’s better-known works, and probably the easiest recording to obtain of late has been that of the California EAR Unit (see review) on the excellent Bridge label. This version is recorded fairly closely, and the players do well to create atmosphere, though with the flute a little too far forward in the balance the repetitions do tend to sound a little too much like repetitions rather than a growing, organic series of patterns, and sonorities which melt into and shift over each other in endless variations. The other version collectors will have come across is on the Col Legno label, which is a more attractive prospect. The recording has more resonance and a deeper perspective, allowing the instrumental colours to combine more convincingly.
This ‘live in Buffalo’ recording falls somewhere in between with regard to recorded quality, in decent enough sound but with the musicians more distant, an quality which helps bring out the best of a pretty dry acoustic. In terms of performance it is indeed top notch. Crippled Symmetry is not what you would call ideally instrumented and, other than some phases on bass flute, the wind instrument is always going to stick out with a gracelessly angular contrast of timbre from the bell-like resonances of the piano and tuned percussion. Flautist Eberhard Blum’s playing is suitably enigmatic, and his phrasing and dynamic treatment of Feldman’s repeating shapes makes this one of the most listenable versions of the three already mentioned. There are occasional intonation issues, but those high ‘peaks’ are correctly reined in, avoiding for example the ‘dooo dooo WAAA doo’ effect in the opening which reduces the appeal of the Bridge label version for me.
The only compromise with this recording is its live nature, and there is a certain amount of audience noise - coughs and the like - to content with. This relatively minor feature and a small price to pay, but if sepulchral studio silence is important to you then the Col Legno version will be first choice. Personally, I have my doubts as to whether Crippled Symmetry is one of Feldman’s most successful works, full of fascination as it is. The effect is a little rough around the edges which is probably part of the work’s appeal, a bit like an extremely slowed-down Thelonious Monk. If you are interested in further exploring Feldman’s art then Rothko Chapelis always a good place to start, and Piano and String Quartetan equally good place on which to build your acquaintance. The String Quartetis also very fine indeed.
As always with Feldman’s mature work, Crippled Symmetry is a piece which really does need its space to unfold. The suspension of time, tensions of cadence and quasi-release spread over many minutes and the interactions of the players and the tonal colours they produce are all powerfully present, and this is one of the finest performances you are ever likely to hear anywhere. I just wish he’d used something other than that d*mn flute.
One of the finest performances you’re likely to hear anywhere.