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Morton FELDMAN (1926-1987)
Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello (1987)
Aleck Karis (piano); Curtis Macomber (violin); Danielle Farina (viola); Christopher Finckel (cello)
rec. 13 December 2013, Conrad Prebys Hall, Conrad Prebys Music Center, UC San Diego
BRIDGE 9446 [75:23]

Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello was Morton Feldman’s last work. Not only does it have comparable qualities in scale and content to other mature masterpieces such as Piano and String Quartet (review), but also it seems, if anything, to possess them under an enhancing lens. The spread chords of Piano and String Quartet lend an elaborated, almost baroque flavour to the piece by comparison with the chords of Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello, which drop into the sonic landscape vertically.

There is much to be said about this music but there are few words which sum it up better than the composer’s own commentary on the stretched duration of his later pieces, “… scale is another matter. You have to have control of the piece – it requires a heightened kind of concentration. Before, my pieces were objects; now, they are like evolving things.”

Seventy-five minutes may seem daunting for a single piece of music, but it can easily embrace you in its time-altering atmosphere, and the duration can smoothly pass with the lightness of the beat of a butterfly’s wing. In the beauty of its closing minutes you can find yourself wishing it had been longer. That sense of ‘control’ is evident at every moment. There are no sections where the composer is marking time, nor thank goodness is there any evidence of the musicians back-pedalling in this excellent performance. There is relaxation and tension; as there is in the movement of your own chest when breathing. Notes and chords follow with impeccable logic from their predecessors, phrases are shaped, contrasts of timbre emerge, broad curves of profoundly far-reaching musical gesture are spread before us.

Everyone will have their own personal response to this, but for me it is an ultimate expression of loneliness. There is an undeniable melancholy about this piece, which always shifts away from any consolatory resolutions which seek to take root too firmly. There are fragments which might remind you of Debussy’s Des pas sur la neige, and in some ways it might be seen as a vast extension of its first two bars. As pianist Aleck Karis states in his brief booklet note, this is also a “luminous melancholy”, one which creates impulse and attracts rather than making one turn away and wish it would stop.

I’ve had a hunt around but there don’t seem to be any readily available alternatives. The Hat Hut label released a recording in 1995 with members of the Dutch Ives Ensemble which is no longer in print. In any case I have no hesitation in choosing this as a default first choice. If I have any criticism of the recording it is that the piano sounds a little soft-textured or mid-range heavy in its timbre, but this is not something which detracts from the effect of the whole.

Dominy Clements