Morton FELDMAN (1926-1987)
Intermission 5 (1952) [4:24]
George CRUMB (b. 1929)
Processional (1983) [9:49]
Piano Piece 1952 (1952) [3:39]
Extensions 3 (1952) [5:30]
George CRUMB
A Little Suite for Christmas ‘AD 1979’ (1980) [13:07]
1. The Visitation [2:39]
2. Berceuse for the Infant Jesu [1:35]
3. The Shepherds’ NoŽl [1:15]
4. Adoration of the Magi [1:23]
5. Nativity Dance [0:59]
6. Canticle of the Holy Night [3:07]
7. Carol of the Bells [2:09]
Palais de Mari (1986) [26:16]
Steven Osborne (piano)
rec. December 2014, Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth, UK
Reviewed as a Studio Master download from Hyperion Records
Pdf booklet included
HYPERION CDA68108 [62:45]

Steven Osborne is one of the top thoroughbreds in Hyperion’s stable of fine pianists. Indeed, his epic traversal of Olivier Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant- Jťsus – a work he’s made his own – is one of the most astonishing things I’ve ever heard (CDA67351/2). Now we have a well-chosen programme of music by two of the greats of 20th-century American music, Morton Feldman and George Crumb, one that he has played in concert recently (review). My comparative version of Feldman’s Palais de Mari is from The Transcendentalist, with Ivan Ilić at the keyboard; as for Crumb’s Processional and A Little Suite for Christmas I’ve chosen Jeffrey Jacob (Centaur CRC2080).

Those who fight shy of experimental music – in any or all of its forms – might be surprised at how mellifluous the piano music of Crumb and Feldman can be. Let’s start with the latter, whose Intermission 5 (1952) is first up. As Steven Bruns points out in his informative liner-notes one might expect the young Feldman to be heavily influenced by his teachers, Wallingford Riegger and Stefan Wolpe – well drilled in the rigours of Schoenberg and Schreker – but this is anything but sere or severe.

What Intermission 5 does have in common with Schoenberg and his followers is a wonderful sense of distillation, of a world described in microcosmic terms. In this case it’s about a finely graded response to pitch, colour and dynamics, where the fleeting moment – and its inevitable decay – are what really seem to matter. Osborne delivers the music with quiet authority and aplomb, both here and in the contemporaneous Piano Piece 1952 and Extensions 3. The former, which celebrates the glories of the single note, has a gentle glow that’s utterly engaging; as for the latter, insistent but still very approachable, it doesn’t begin to harangue or hector.

What is so rewarding about these scores is that they force one to revise and recalibrate one’s expectations. Instead of grand gestures or self-serving virtuosity we are presented with something much simpler; it’s the tiny shimmers of colour or shifts of dynamic that define these sense-renewing soundscapes; happily this fascinating terrain is superbly mapped by engineer David Hinitt. Whether at the very edge of audibility or, rarely, at fff everything is accommodated with ease. The recorded balance is pretty much ideal, and the acoustic of this venue is as pleasing as ever.

As part of a New York set dominated by some of the most influential painters of the age it’s not surprising that Feldman took many of his musical cues from the visual arts. That said, it was a picture in the Louvre – that of the Amorite palace at Mari – which inspired Palais de Mari, his last composition for solo piano. What I didn’t know – and something that Bruns refers to in the booklet – is that Feldman was also interested in Near- and Middle-Eastern rugs. In particular he was much taken with their ‘inexact symmetries’ and intricate dyeing techniques.

All of which feeds into an extraordinary 25-minute work in which the music, pared to its very essence, is still freighted with feeling. And even if some of Feldman’s progressions and sonorities mimic conventional exoticism they are just fragments of a large, slowly evolving structure. Osborne’s sustained air of concentration – after all, he’s working with small, delicately wrought pieces and patterns, which then need to be fitted together – is truly remarkable. Even more impressive is that he invests the notes with the loveliest of hues, the entire piece seeming to bud and bloom in timeless perpetuity.

I’ve often extolled the virtues of Hyperion’s solo piano recordings across all periods, so the sheer finesse and tactility of this new album shouldn’t be a revelation. And yet it is, for recording works such as these, built at the micro-level as it were, requires very special skills if the music is to surrender all its secrets. Ivan Ilić’s engineers opt for a bold approach that I find a tad prosaic – dogged even. Also, the close recording picks up a fair bit of mechanical noise from the piano. However, the rest of his album, focused on Scriabin, is much more to my taste.

The first Crumb piece, Processional, is rather Debussian in character, its colour washes starred with Ravelian glitter. Osborne blends the two worlds very well, and every last detail or harmonic twist registers with clarity and what I can only describe as aristocratic sensuality. This may come as something of a surprise to those unfamiliar with this repertoire. Then again this album is full of surprises, all of the most welcome and enduring kind.

As with Feldman’s Palais de Mari Crumb’s A Little Suite for Christmas takes its inspiration from a visual source. In this case it’s the frescoes in the Arena/Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, completed by Giotto in about 1305. This seven-movement work, at times reminiscent of Messiaen at his arresting, shard-like best, is despatched with thrilling energy and razor-sharp articulation. The delicate lullaby seems effused with inner radiance, The Shepherds’ NoŽl is as crisp as a wintry Christmas morn and The Adoration of the Magi has a quiet, rapturous quality that’s breathtaking in its simple beauty. As for the angular Nativity Dance Osborne gives it all the thrust and sparkle it needs; and how atmospheric the canticle, how poised the bell-like figures of the carol, diadems above a dark, counter-tolling bass.

It’s hard to imagine this – or anything else in this collection – being more sensitively and authoritatively executed. The music’s micrometer-like changes of colour, dynamics and duration are just extraordinary, and while Jeffrey Jacob does a fair job with Processional – both the original and revised versions – and in the suite I feel more like an observer and not a participant. In short, he and Ilić have the requisite technique but little of Osborne’s spirit-impelling poetry. And while both are well recorded the Hyperion sound is in another league entirely.

Epiphanies aplenty for newcomers and old hands alike; ravishing sound, too.

Dan Morgan

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