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Morton FELDMAN (1926-1987)
Patterns in a Chromatic Field (1981)
Rohan de Saram (cello)
Marianne Schroeder (piano)
rec. 1993, Westdeutscher Rundfunk, Köln
HAT[NOW]ART 204-2 [2 CDs: 105:25]

Morton Feldman is remembered as the American experimental modernist composer who, in his later life, wrote works of enormous length: For Philip Guston lasts around four hours and his second string quartet for six hours. He studied under Wallingford Riegger and Stefan Wolpe and became a friend of John Cage and also of the abstract expressionist artists of the time. He has attracted a devoted following and there is a useful web resource here. But he exists somewhat on the edge of the repertoire, even for enthusiasts of contemporary and recent music. I have heard a few of his pieces and liked them so was pleased to receive Patterns in a Chromatic Field for review.

This dates from 1981 and is, I think, a representative later work. It is scored for cello and piano and lasts an hour and three quarters, running continuously without any breaks. It is made up of relatively short passages, each of which explores a short motif by subtly varying it. These passages never repeat. There are no themes. There is also no regular pulse. The general movement tends to be slow, and the motifs quiet. Each of them individually can be haunting, poignant and beautiful or sometimes irritating and maddening. The cello is often required to play high harmonics and the pianist also exploits extremes of range. I rapidly gave up trying to discern an overall structure and fell to listening just to one thing after another. I found myself thinking of two very different composers: Webern, whose pieces are often, like Feldman, very quiet but, unlike Feldman, extremely short, and Villa-Lobos, who pours out ideas with an amazing prodigality but is often unwilling or unable to manipulate them into satisfying compositions which have, as Aristotle would wish, a beginning, a middle and an end. Although Feldman is aiming higher, this music is suspiciously like the kind of thing whose main or only purpose is to induce a trance state in the listener. There seems no particular reason why it should not last ten minutes, or half an hour, or two hours.

It is one of the strengths of this kind of music that it attracts dedicated performers. They play it because they want to, not because they have to. Rohan de Saram and Marianne Schroeder clearly believe in the work, play with commitment and attention to tiny differences in rhythm and phrasing to realize the composer’s vision. They are recorded in a warm acoustic, very different from the dryness which used to be inflicted on contemporary works. This set is in fact a reissue and there are now several rivals, some of which add additional music. The discs are presented rather curiously: each is in a double fold sleeve and the two together fit into a further cardboard sleeve. The sleeve note is spread across the two sleeves, is in English only and discusses Feldman’s aesthetic in general rather than this work in particular.

Feldman enthusiasts need not hesitate. Newcomers might do better to start with works closer to traditional models, such as the splendid orchestral piece Coptic Light, available in several recordings, such as that by Tilson Thomas (Presto Argo CD 4485132)

Stephen Barber



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