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Morton FELDMAN (1926-1987)
Coptic Light (1986) [25:38]
String Quartet and Orchestra (1973) [24:57]
Arditti Quartet
Orf Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra/Michael Boder, Emilio Pomārico
rec. 2010/18, Konzerthaus, Vienna; World Conference Center, Bonn
CAPRICCIO C5378 [50:34]

The programme of this release incentivises us to listen to Coptic Light first, but there is a fascination in String Quartet and Orchestra and the 13 years of change between these two works that makes more sense to reverse this order in practice. String Quartet and Orchestra came about as the result of a commission from the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and its then Principal Conductor, Michael Tilson Thomas. It is part of a series of works titled [Instrument] and Orchestra and might initially seem the more ‘difficult’ of the two works here, but it was created just a couple of years after one of Feldman’s most appealing and accessible pieces, Rothko Chapel, and there more than a few moments here that connect the two.

Feldman’s feel for mournful cadences is expressed several times in String Quartet and Orchestra, and there is a slowness and atmospheric feel of suspense that now can seem more cinematic than avant-garde. You might feel a bit pushed to call this a ‘lyrical’ work, but it has a logical flow even amidst its block-like progressions in terms of orchestral colour. The orchestra used is a large one, but this is in pursuit of colour contrasts, and the general volume is quiet and restrained. There is a ‘concerto grosso’ feel to the piece, with alternation between the quartet and orchestra a common gesture, but the musical conversation is monolithic rather than virtuosic. Christian Heindl’s booklet notes sum it up as “an elegiac piece, a piece that seems to convey calm in the sense of reassurance. If it is a lament, its message is not desperation, but rather the snapshot of a moment, from which, no sooner is it over, new things may emerge.”

There are not many recordings of String Quartet and Orchestra around, and my reference of recent years has been on the HAT label with the Pellegrini Quartet and the Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Frankfurt conducted by Lucas Vis (review). This is a more detailed recording, the instruments of the quartet balanced more forward and subtle details of instrumentation coming across a little more clearly than with this Capriccio version.

Coptic Light is one of Feldman’s late masterpieces, taking a huge orchestra into a world of strangeness and poetic shimmering. The title is a reference to the composer’s fascination with ancient Coptic textile art, the patterns of which might have been a reminder of earlier graphically notated scores, but in Feldman’s words he was struck more by the way that these fragments of cloth “conveyed an essential atmosphere of another realm.” Another feature of the concept of the work was “prompted by Sibelius’s observation that the orchestra differed mainly from the piano in that it has no pedal. With this in mind, I set to work to create an orchestral pedal, continually varying in nuance.” Sustained chords in different orchestral sections overlap and blend, indeed acting like the pedal on a piano, but of course with that wide spectrum of colour and contrast of timbre you can only obtain with an orchestra. Sections also appear to function in different tempi, with the piano no longer the sustaining instrument, but more a continuo, its spread chords adding sparkle above rhythmic patterns elsewhere; the strings surging gently but more urgently, like waves close to a lakeside shore, while winds and brass create elongated tapestries of sound with cluster-like, sinister chords. Transformations further into the piece see some of these functions transformed, with brass and winds becoming more animated with soft but staccato chords providing syncopated action as the harp takes on a more central role; the upper strings’ obsessive fifth-interval motif beginning to recede in an ending that leaves its own question mark.

Coptic Light has been recorded a few times, and you can find it with Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony in a fine recording on the Decca label. This once again doesn’t shy away from detail, the menacing drums taps coming across more clearly than with the Capriccio recording, and the subtle presence of other instruments more apparent though arguably more ‘exposed’. The more generalised sound of the Vienna RSO is good. Its atmospheric feel has its own qualities, and you can tune yourself in to make your own discoveries. Tilson Thomas takes just under 30 minutes with his version, where the CPO label has a recording from the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by Michael Morgan that zips through the work in just under 24 minutes, as does Michael Gielen with the South West German Radio Symphony Orchestra on Hänssler. These faster readings are by no means invalid, but to my mind do take something away from that ‘pedal’ quality Feldman was after. Michael Boder’s 25:38 (not 27:26 as printed on the cover) seems about right in comparison.

To sum up, this is a fine coupling of two Morton Feldman orchestral works that deserve multiple versions in the record catalogue, so this release is very welcome indeed. The more you hear this music the more its unique qualities work its way into your conscious and subconscious mind, opening out new spaces of experience and hopefully releasing new worlds of imagination and rare beauty. Whatever your response, you owe it to yourself to be aware of Morton Feldman’s music, and this orchestral recording may prove to be a revelation.

Dominy Clements

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