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Morton FELDMAN (1926-1987)
Complete Violin/Viola and Piano Works
Christina Fong (violin, viola)
Paul Hersey (piano)
rec. 2003, recording dates and venues not given
OGREOGRESS PRODUCTIONS no number [58:36 + 70:00]

This release was reviewed by David Blomenberg back in 2006, but resurfaces on these pages now as the result of an oversight. I recently reviewed Erik Carlson and Aleck Karis’s recording of Morton Feldman’s For John Cage on the Bridge label, and Glenn Freeman of OgreOgress records quite rightly pointed out that I had neglected to include Christina Fong and Paul Hersey’s recording by way of a comparison, one that has been critically claimed as ‘the best available’ elsewhere. We reviewers rarely get to be heroes going around righting wrongs, but in this case it was a question of getting hold of a copy of the OgreOgress recording and bringing some attention back to this highly desirable collection.

Feldman’s complete violin/viola with piano works are presented here almost in chronological order, starting out with an ambitious but relatively student work, the Sonata. This is full of hints of Bartók and Hindemith, flexing the young composer’s neo-classical style to the full and revealing a clear talent with a secure and confident technical grounding. Piece, another early work, takes us firmly into atonal avant-garde territory, brushing up against Webern in its pointillist transparency and sparseness. The Projection series was Feldman’s first foray into graphic notation, with a great deal of choice in terms of pitches left to the musicians. This is another level of abstraction, but also a relinquishing of control that Feldman took back with Extensions, in which specific notes are brought back into the composing process. There are superficial similarities in the impressions given by both these pieces here, but you can hear chords and intervals in the piano that have more of a Feldman flavour with Extensions I, which is in a fast tempo and not without intensity.

Vertical Thoughts 2 is perhaps the first work here that you would recognise as more typical Feldman on a blind hearing. Silence takes on a more significant role, and while there is freedom in the coordination between the players this is not the feeling you get from this performance, where momentary moods coincide more often than they diverge in terms of ensemble. There is quite a change in recorded perspective between the previous works and The Viola in my Life 3, moving from fairly close to a sound surrounded by a halo of resonance. Glenn Freeman of OgreOgress records has informed me that the contrast between a dry chamber music hall and a huge basilica was a deliberate attempt to make the extreme change in Feldman’s style very noticeable between his student/Cage/Webern period and the later minimalist style.
The Viola in my Life is part of a sequence of works written for the viola playing of Karen Phillips, a collaboration that also resulted in the beautiful viola part in Rothko Chapel. The Viola in my Life has four movements, of which the third is the only one with piano alone. Hearing it here does indeed make for “one of Feldman’s most exquisite miniatures.” The penultimate work on the first disc is Spring of Chosroes, named after a mythical carpet, relating to Feldman’s fixation on the patterns in oriental rugs. The musical material is pared down here even further, creating atmosphere with fewer notes, longer periods of repetition and increasing subtlety of variation. This is classic Feldman, creating a timeless space in which musical expression becomes a totally immersive experience. Composition for solo violin has a strong connection with Violin and String Quartet, being similar in character to the latter’s violin part. These are Feldman’s variations and repetitions taken into rarefied worlds shared by Bach and others, and with its stately double-stopping and counterpoint this is a Feldman ‘Sarabande’ par excellence.

Disc 2 has two works in entirely different proportions. For Aaron Copland is a lonely sounding piece for solo violin, here not leaning on double-stop techniques, but on pure single notes and intervals. There is indeed a haunted feel to this short work, and as David Blomenberg says, it is “top notch Feldman” for all its brevity.

And so to For John Cage. The difference in recorded perspective between this and the Bridge recording could hardly be wider, with the latter’s dry acoustic making the music into something intimate as well as vast, the huge resonance for Fong and Hersey adding an almost surreal spatial dimension to the sonorities. Christina Fong actually uses vibrato occasionally, which in my experience is rare in this music but adds a surprising expressive extra to her palette. In terms of performance I would say the honours are about equal between these two recordings, with sensitivity of touch and timbre in evidence from all concerned. At roughly 5 minutes shorter there is a bit more urgency in Fong/Hersey’s ‘wide awake’ traversal of this score, but not so much as to leave us feeling short changed. In any case there is a meditative extra layer in that acoustic environment which makes the performers sound as if they are in the middle of a huge, abandoned factory. I have to admit to being a sucker for this sort of resonance, and you can’t say that it hides details in the playing – especially not in the violin part.

In the end this is a collection that has to be considered as a whole, and as a complete collection of Morton Feldman’s violin/viola music with piano it has an intrinsic value that goes beyond any one work. The recordings of the earlier works on CD 1 use what sounds as if it might be a rather elderly piano with a slightly twangy character, but the performances all work well enough. There are one or ‘gravelly’ moments in the piano sound, for instance at 1:07 into Vertical Thoughts 2, but this is a minor point. Presentation is on the flimsy side, with each disc clinging onto rubbery studs affixed to a none too sturdy foldout card which also carries a booklet note that starts out well enough but ultimately collapses into effusive subjectivity. Track numbers printed on the back would also have been useful. When it comes to competition in terms of ‘complete’ editions there is a 2 CD set on the Mode label performed by Stephen Clarke and Marc Sabat, but this has neither the Sonata nor For Aaron Copeland, and it splits its 81:56 performance of For John Cage over the two discs. I also find the playing rather abstracted and uninvolving, sticking to a medium-soft dynamic for the most part and lacking in the detailed contrasts found with Fong and Hersey.

All in all then, I would say get this set while you can: it’s a limited edition, so won’t be around for ever!

Dominy Clements

Previous review: David Blomenberg
[Sonata] for Violin and Piano (1945) [14:01]
Piece (1950) [1:49]
Projection 4 (1951) [4:41]
Extensions 1 (1951) [5:00]
Vertical Thoughts 2 (1963) [4:07]
The Viola in My Life 3 (1970) [4:33]
Spring of Chosroes (1977) [13:13]
[Composition] (1984) [10:47]
For Aaron Copland (1981) [4:00]
For John Cage (1982) [66:00]


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