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Morton FELDMAN (1926-1987)
Violin and Orchestra (1979) [50:39]
Carolin Widmann (violin)
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra/Emilio Pomàrico
rec. October 2009, Sendesaal des Hessischen Rundfunks, Frankfurt
ECM NEW SERIES 2283 [50:39]

I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Carolin Widmann’s playing in her Phantasy of Spring album (see review) for ECM, and though her recordings for this label range from Schubert to Xenakis I’ve also come across her name elsewhere in Mozart. Phantasy of Spring opens with Morton’s Feldman’s Spring of Chosroes, but Feldman’s Violin and Orchestra is of an entirely different order of magnitude.
The orchestra for this work is the largest required for any of Feldman’s works, including quadruple and triple winds and brass, four percussionists, two harps, two pianos and a mass of strings. The aim of this vast resource is not volume of sound however, but contrast of colour and texture. Feldman’s work is, as Alex Ross has put it, “glacially slow and snowily soft”, but while Violin and Orchestra does hold its power in restraint and sounds which emerge from a backdrop of inkblack silence, there is also a constant restlessness and a sense of onward flow which can take you by surprise. I’ve heard some commentators suggesting this is music which would be a good cure for insomnia, but I can’t imagine anything further from the truth. Sleep inducing music for me is the kind which lacks interest and surprise, from the composer or the performer. Feldman’s Violin and Orchestra would keep me wide awake simply through its constant changes of timbre and interruptions of repose. The score is highly tensile from beginning to end, and though the forces nudging you are soft-edged, their steely cores will drill holes into your consciousness.
Jürg Stenzl’s booklet notes for this release are perceptive, but Carolin Widmann’s own comments on the ECM website are equally interesting: “Sometimes when I listen to Feldman I’m unsure if a few minutes or half an eternity has passed… As a player, you have to immerse yourself in the Feldman cosmos. In Violin and Orchestra, the violin is first among equals. What Feldman brings out of the instrument in terms of sound and colour is very beautiful. But it’s by no means a piece for demonstrating instrumental capacity. This concept is completely abolished... To play Feldman, you have to take a back seat and make sure that all expression is solely in the service of the music.”
This piece is by no means a violin concerto, and the solo part of Violin and Orchestra explores extremes of register and sound; you will seek melody at your peril. Like a good abstract painting, you can often perceive that it’s ‘good’, but may struggle as to the ‘why’ when trying to analyse its qualities. There is a similar thing going on with Violin and Orchestra. Feldman’s unique voice manages almost entirely to evade modernist stereotype at the same time as avoiding comparison with 18th century or Romantic precedent. The huge orchestra is used like a chamber ensemble, the sounds moving across its surface like the shadows of looming clouds, sections combining or appearing as disparate entities, but the tutti rarely being employed.
The recording is very good, with the indistinct atmospheres of some passages well expressed, the detail in others captured with refinement. There might be an argument for placing the solo violin a fraction lower in the balance, but there would then be a well-founded fear it might become too much part of the orchestra and be lost as a distinct voice. As far as competition goes there’s a recording with Isabelle Faust on the Col Legno label which is also coupled with Feldman’s Coptic Light. Listening to this online it appears to have a different atmosphere; almost a sense of menace which I don’t hear in the ECM recording. There is also a certain amount of extraneous/audience noise, though if the work fascinates then this is certainly an alternative worth exploring, and the coupling is an added attraction. Listening ‘through’ the digital streaming against CD I would cautiously give ECM the edge in terms of clarity, but as far as the soloists go I would be hard pressed to select a winner. Widmann’s gestures are at times the more well defined, but some of Faust’s glissandi are chillingly expressive.
This isn’t music for entertainment, for putting your slippered feet up and relaxing with a glass of port, and the final minutes are quite deathly and discomforting. As Carolin Widmann says, once you enter “into its spatial dimension you stop thinking about where this music has come from and where it is headed and you become part of it. And that opens up philosophical questions. How does this music change us, as listeners?”
So, listeners, are you ready to be changed?
Dominy Clements