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Morton FELDMAN (1926-1987)
Rothko Chapel (1971) [26:21]*
Erik SATIE (1866-1925)
Gnossienne No. 4 (1891) [3:36]
John CAGE (1912-1992)
Four2 (1990) [6:28]
Ogive No. 1 (1886) [3:04]
ear for EAR (Antiphonies) (1983) [4:00]
Ogive No. 2 (1888) [3:07]
Gnossienne No. 1 (1890) [5:16]
Five (1988) [5:07]
Gnossienne No. 3 (1890) [3:30]
In a Landscape (1948) [9:42]
Kim Kashkashian (viola)*
Steven Schick (percussion)*
Sarah Rothenberg (celesta* and piano) (Satie)
Lauren Snouffer (soprano)*
Sonja Bruzauskas (mezzo)*
L. Wayne Ashley (tenor) (ear for EAR (Antiphonies))
Houston Chamber Choir* (and Cage)/Robert Simpson
rec. May 2012, Stude Hall, Rice University, Houston (Cage; Satie), and February 2013, The Brown Foundation Performing Arts Theater, Asia Society Texas Center
ECM NEW SERIES 2378 (4811796) [70:24]

Conceived by pianist Sarah Rothenberg, this attractive 20th century programme celebrates both the cross-pollination of inspiration between art and music as well as between musicians. We are reminded that John Cage was inspired by Erik Satie, Morton Feldman by Cage, and Mark Rothko’s inspiration included that from composers including Cage and Feldman.

The main draw here is Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel, a gorgeously meditative work written as a tribute to Mark Rothko and specifically for the eponymous space – an octagonal building designed to house fourteen of his large canvases. “Stillness, silence, contemplation. These are the characteristics of Rothko’s paintings and of the chapel that was created for his work.” These are the words with which Sarah Rothenberg sums up the atmosphere of Rothko Chapel, and this is indeed a very fine performance. The only thing missing is the chapel itself, or an acoustic that comes close to recreating its special character. The theatre acoustic used for this recording is on the dry side, and the instruments are recorded relatively closely. This preserves some of the magical effects in the score, but these are moments of stillness and beauty that are projected into air that doesn’t respond to Feldman’s musical message. I’ve heard recordings made in Rothko Chapel and this does make a big difference, and it’s sadly ironic that this recording should have appeared on a label with a reputation for liking juicy acoustics. I take nothing away from this as a fine performance. Kim Kashkashian’s rich viola tones are a joy, the choir and other musicians are well balanced and perform with subtlety and refinement. This has nothing to do with authenticity and I certainly would be the last person to insist that this should only be performed in the chapel itself, but this is one piece in which the environment is as much an instrument as those of the performers. In missing this element we miss that final layer of timelessness and wonder.

The rest of the programme suffers less from such issues, though the Stude Hall is also quite dry sounding in this recording. Sarah Rothenberg plays Satie with a gorgeous touch and a fine sense of pacing – not too slow and reverential, but allowing plenty of time for sonorities to expand, and for the music to inhabit similar worlds to the pieces that surround it. Cage’s choral works here are versions of his late number pieces, music that is infused with the spirit of Zen and Buddhism to create works of a meditative character. Five in particular is fascinating for its slowly overlapping parts, with the vulnerable sound of single sustained voices and difficult sounding intonation creating a vital edge which again might have benefited from some extra ‘air’ around the sound.

The programme concludes with Cage’s earlier and more Satie-influenced piano piece In a Landscape, a sonorous and elegant soundscape in a ‘continuum’ of notes that pass like sunlight on slowly rippling water.

This is a tricky disc to evaluate. If you have a nice big space and good speakers you might very well be able to make your own ideal Rothko Chapel experience with this fine performance, but at home or on headphones there are other recordings that closer approach the composer’s desire that the instruments and voices should fill “the space of the chapel… [and] should permeate the whole octagonal-shaped room and not be heard from a certain distance…” There is a more forgiving acoustic for the 1992 version on the New Albion label, NA039CD, though I wouldn’t say the actual performance is better than this ECM album. Avoid the Hänssler Classic performance conducted by Rupert Huber which is a rather odd live recording. Gregg Smith’s musicians on Sony Classical have the space and are good, though there are one or two moments of dodgy intonation. The Collegium Novum Zurich on the Aeon label AECD0425 has plenty of atmosphere and is generally recommendable. Rothko Chapel is a genuine 20th century masterpiece and recordings of it remain rather thin on the ground, which makes it all the more of a shame that this ECM release falls short only for want of a more suitable acoustic.

Dominy Clements


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