This is not only a well performed and nicely recorded programme of music by Morton Feldman with cello, but is also a potted history of virtually his entire creative life. The relatively early Two Pieces shows the influence of Webern in its sense of timbre and tonality as well as in its brevity, as in some ways does the abstraction of Projection I. This sparing score already shows Feldman’s taste for silence and refined repetition, and if repeated 30 times might even pass for a much later work. The slightly later solo work Intersection 4 is more physical, still with moments of suspended time, but launched from a virtuoso player/instrument interaction compared in the booklet notes to action paintings such as those of Jackson Pollock.
The Four Songs to Poems by e.e. cummings respond to the texts with uncompromisingly modernist pointillist writing for voice and instruments alike, creating atmosphere and emphasising the poet’s simultaneous directness and linguistic surrealism. The texts are not given in the booklet alas, Paola Ronchetti doing well with remarkably complex lines but Feldman not giving any singer much of a chance to articulate for comprehensibility.
From the late 1950s you hear Feldman’s voice seeking ever further into relationships of sound and time. Written using notation of free duration, Two Instruments and Durations 2 take us further beyond the constrictions of bar-lines and set rhythms, both pieces creating atmospheres of distant and indistinct horizons. More striking in effect is the unusual setting in Voices and Cello. This has a strangely unsettling feel, with the voices used much as the instruments are elsewhere, sounding both fragilely human and strangely dehumanised in their vibrato-free, sustained and static presence.
Patterns in a Chromatic Field for cello and piano is full-on late Feldman, kicking off with relatively intense, high-register notes from the performers, making you wonder what will happen over the next hour and a half and how on earth we are going to keep things going. Divided into characteristic ‘fields’, Feldman doses his subtly transforming material in distinct sections which have no link or transition between them, but which somehow fit perfectly. This is the kind of work which demands that you adjust your listening expectations, that you abandon any thoughts of 19th century form and development and let ideas of time and music re-adjust themselves around you as the work progresses.
The closest competitor to this release I could find is that on the Aeon label, AECD0977, which covers all of the non-vocal pieces here. Arne Deforce and Yutaka Oya’s performance of Patterns in a Chromatic Field is very good, but even with one or two minor blemishes I prefer the Simonacci duo’s version. The Aeon recording is in a richer acoustic and with the cello less present in the mix, the pizzicati a little tubby sounding and the definition of the more complex higher cello figures sometimes rather indistinct. The depth of acoustic kicked off by the piano in this Brilliant Classics release is more than likely generated by sophisticated electronics, but the resulting effect has detail as well as atmosphere. You may be irritated by having this piece divided over two discs but conventional CD will always bump into this problem in a 90-minute work. Again I prefer the Brilliant Classics solution, which has its cut earlier in the work and devoting CD 2 to the lion’s share, rather than seeing you through the first 50 minutes or so and then tagging the last 37 minutes onto the second disc as with the Aeon release. Our version also cuts to give an ‘act 1 - act 2’ feel, rather than prolonging the agony with an extended fadeout. If it was me I would chuck in an extra MP3 version of the work for uninterrupted enjoyment if required, but you can’t have everything, and there is always the download option.
At bargain price this is an excellent programme of one of the 20th century’s most distinctive musical voices. Patterns in a Chromatic Field is not quite as magical as Piano and String Quartet, but does deliver a similarly transcendent experience. You may indeed be obliged to alter your preconceptions about musical convention, but isn’t that what discovering new music is all about?