American Classics - Feldman: String Quartet

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FELDMAN String Quartet (1979) ? Group for Contemporary Music ? NAXOS 8.559190 (78:35)

The Group for Contemporary Music made several CDs of American music for Koch in the early 1990s, the above being one of them. Now here it is, reappearing as part of Naxos?s ?American Classics? series. I expect one of Fanfare ?s resident Feldman specialists covered it back then?I think Mike Silverton was doing it in those days?but I have been unable to locate any review. According to the CD information, this was a world premiere recording.

Although not to be confused with his monumentally long second string quartet, this late work of Feldman?s still runs for almost 80 minutes. (Well, it doesn?t exactly run .) Readers unfamiliar with this composer?s music but interested in experimenting at the low Naxos price should dispense with any normal idea of the passing of time. Feldman?s work unfolds at a snail?s pace, with the result that every musical incident is examined in minute, close-up detail. Imagine walking down your garden path to the mailbox; now imagine doing it on your hands and knees with a magnifying glass, taking over an hour to complete the journey. You would know a heck of a lot more about the nature of your garden path by the end of it.

Of course, it?s not entirely as simple as that. Feldman understood the big picture, form-wise: the apparent randomness of the sounds he dwells on in his own good time is kept in balance by a fierce musical intelligence. These sounds include rocking motifs, chords, and often even single notes, usually separated by moments of complete silence. Feldman requests the quartet to play without vibrato and, most of the time, using mutes. Much of the material consists of high harmonics. It is nearly all pianissimo or softer, except for some sudden loud interruptions?for example, at 26:00 and 33:30 respectively. (The Eastern-bloc composer Kancheli appears to have known his Feldman. Unheralded fortes are a fingerprint of his as well.) As the work progresses, earlier motifs or textures are revisited and developed, providing at least an unconscious sense of structure. In the end, the painstaking process undertaken together by the composer, the performers, and the listener creates a unique, mesmerizing context where sudden shifts of emphasis are almost seismic. The forte s mentioned above seem earth shattering. The occasional consonant harmony, unnoticed in another context, becomes pure balm. The slightest rhythmic acceleration feels like panic. High, quiet harmonics from the solo violin assume the cloak of unbearable loneliness.

For those readers already conversant with Feldman?s world, it need only be said that this performance seems to me as good as it could possibly be. (I don?t have access to a score.) The internal balance is finely judged, and all four members of the group must have spent many hours in meditation to be so at home in this time span. By the way, the stalwart players are Benjamin Hudson and Carol Zeavin, violins; Lois Martin, viola; and Joshua Gordon, cello. Recorded sound is first-rate. One can only hope Naxos will reissue the other recordings in the Koch series, particularly those of Wolpe and Wuorinen.

Morton Feldman?s mind worked in a manner unlike that of any other composer. This fact alone makes him important and his music riveting.

FANFARE: Phillip Scott

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8559190

  • UPC: 636943919026

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: Morton Feldman

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Group for Contemporary Music

  • Performer: Benjamin Hudson, Carol Zeavin, Joshua Gordon, Lois Martin


  1. Quartet for Strings

    Composer: Morton Feldman

    Ensemble: Group for Contemporary Music

    Performer: Joshua Gordon (Cello), Benjamin Hudson (Violin), Lois Martin (Viola), Carol Zeavin (Violin)