Feldman: Piano & String Quartet / Ray, Eclipse Quartet

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Find time to sit back and let infinity wash over you.


FELDMAN Piano and String Quartet Vicki Ray (pn); Eclipse Qrt BRIDGE 9369 (79:12)

Eighteen years ago I wrote a review of Morton Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet (composed in 1985) for this magazine ( Fanfare 17: 4), and today, confronted with this new performance, I find myself no closer to unraveling the music’s mysteries or explaining why I find it so mesmerizing. Feldman, inspired by the work of abstract expressionist painter friends like Philip Guston and Mark Rothko, devised a manner of composition that confounds any preconceptions of musical form and expression the listener might have. Repeating and subtly altering the voicings of an arpeggiated chord and a few small motifs between the piano and strings, the music seldom rises above a measured, soft-spoken tranquility, and continues for more than an hour and a quarter—something akin to the delicacy and close-knit harmonic fabric of an Elizabethan viol consort extended to Brucknerian scale. The phrasing occasionally takes on the pattern of breathing—in and out—or of irregular clockwork. Somehow it manages to be wistfully contemplative and aggressively engaging at the same time.

Fortunately, over the course of his career and since his passing in 1987, Feldman attracted performers committed to his vision and fluent in the unorthodox requirements of that vision—among them careful, precise attention to his signature approach to nuanced tonal inflections, pace, and ambience. In the hands of pianist Vicki Ray and the Eclipse Quartet (violinists Sarah Thornblade and Sara Parkins, violist Alma Fernandez, cellist Maggie Parkins) the music emerges with an effortless, poised continuity, and is allowed to gradually reveal its intimations of tension and repose. The premiere recording featuring the score’s dedicatees, Aki Takahashi and the Kronos Quartet (Nonesuch), presents the music with a slightly softer focus and subtly accented points of attack, but the differences become less noticeable over the length of the work. (A third recording, by the Ives Ensemble on hat Art, is currently out of print.) All in all, an admirable release.

FANFARE: Art Lange


Morton Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet - any other composer than Feldman would simply call it a Piano Quintet and have done with it - written two years before the composer’s death, is a massive work. It’s nearly eighty minutes long and only just fits onto this CD. It is also extremely beautiful if extraordinarily slow-moving, as is most of Feldman’s late music. It opens with a series of slowly arpeggiated piano chords echoed by held strings which reminds one closely of Arvo Pärt at his most minimal. After that the music hardly changes at all during its very long duration, and one has either to accept it as background ambience – a sort of ‘accompaniment in search of a theme’ – or one must enter into its hypnotic world on the music’s own terms. There is nothing in the course of the music which disturbs the contemplative mood once it is established, and the work is a lot more extended than anything you would find even in Pärt; think of the last movement of Tabula rasa extended to four times its length!
There is an alternative recording by Aki Takahashi and the Kronos Quartet - the artists who originally commissioned the piece - on Elektra/Nonesuch. As a performance it is almost indistinguishable from this one: it is just 27 seconds longer, a totally insignificant difference in a work of this duration. It has a slightly mellower and more resonant acoustic which makes the music, if anything, even more ‘laid back’. As sound it may be regarded as preferable because the strings are marginally less forwardly placed, but this is purely a matter of individual taste. There is also a recording by the Ives Ensemble which is some seven minutes shorter; although I have not heard this, I would suggest that this is music which needs time to breathe, and the slower and more meditative pace of the alternative recordings is of benefit. BBC Music Magazine described that version as “earnest and clear-cut”, which would tend to reinforce my suspicions.
It is important to be clear what this music is not: it is not minimalist. At least if you understand that often misused word in its technical context. There is a degree of subtle change which moves the music forward throughout. So far as I can tell no single phrase is ever repeated without some such change. But what the music is is mini-textural. There are no surprises, no contrasts. Once the music begins the nature of the writing for each individual instrument undergoes an absolute minimum of metamorphosis. It is quite easy to write music like this, but it is much more difficult to make it effective. After a certain period of time there is a very real danger than the mind of the listener will ‘switch off’. Either they will find something else to do with their hands, relegating the music to a sort of background aural wallpaper, or they will find their mind wandering into other realms, be it conscious thought or contemplative meditation. That said, if you can find time to sit back and let infinity wash over you, this is the music for you. You may even find yourself wishing it were longer – and if you do, there are plenty of other late Feldman scores to enjoy, some of which are considerably longer.
The insert notes include a highly interesting memoir by David Lang in which he recalls incidents during the dress rehearsal in 1986 of Feldman’s Coptic Light by the New York Philharmonic. The orchestra “booed him, threw their orchestral parts around, and literally barked at him like dogs.” I can think of many other contemporary composers performed in New York during that era who would have been much more deserving of such a reception.
-- Paul Corfield Godfrey, MusicWeb International

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: BCD9369

  • UPC: 090404936920

  • Label: Bridge Records

  • Composer: Morton Feldman

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Eclipse String Quartet

  • Performer: Vicki Ray