Piano music that quiets the mind and intrigues the senses.
FELDMAN: Intermission 5; Piano Piece 1952; Extensions 3; Palais de Mari; CRUMB: Processional; A Little Suite for Christmas, A.D. 1979 – Steven Osborne, p. – Hyperion CDA 68108, 62:46 ****:
Put the wife and kids to bed, dim the lights, and enter a sound world of musical quietude. Barely audible individual notes juxtaposed with forceful chords, long silences, glacial speed and lengthy reverberations echo in the sound world of Morton Feldman (1926-1987). This is piano music meant for meditation and drifting into the recesses of the mind and the ether of the senses. It’s also pregnant with subtle beauty, nuances of tone color, and moments of new sounds from the piano.
As recounted by Alex Ross in a 2006 New Yorker article, Feldman met one of his major influences, John Cage, in 1950 after they walked out of a concert in Carnegie Hall, just after the New York Philharmonic had performed Anton Webern’s 12-tone Symphony. Feldman remarked to Cage, “Wasn’t that beautiful?” Both had left early to avoid Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, the next work on the program. Feldman grew up in the 30s and 40s of New York City and worked in his family businesses (coats and dry cleaning) until his mid-forties. His friendship with Cage brought him into contact with the artistic intelligentsia of New York’s poets and painters. He was an effusive conversationalist, the opposite of his musical sounds of silence. Although raised in a musical environment of atonality and musical systems (Schoenberg and Webern), he learned from Cage and famous abstract Expressionist painters (Guston, Rothko, Rauschenberg, Newman) that order wasn’t a necessary ingredient of the arts. Feldman often did not write notes on staves, using instead a grid of boxes to guide performers.
Three of Feldman’s works on this disc were penned early in his career, in l952. Intermission 5 juxtaposes strong chords with almost inaudible thinner sonorities. It’s dramatically stimulating. Piano Piece 1952 alternates back and forth between left and right hands, playing one note at a time. Extensions is an exercise in repetition, played as softly as possible in the top piano range, except for four loud chordal interruptions in the bass range.
Late in life Feldman became an art collector and became interested in Near and Middle-Eastern rugs. He admired the inexact patterning in these rugs and the abrash (dye in small qualities) that created a ‘shimmer.’ He replicates that musically in one of his last works, Palais de Mari (1986). Noted for his long (some lasting several hours) compositions late in his career, this work is just over 26 minutes and is an introspective essay in subtle repetitions.
George Crumb (b. 1929) is a unique American compositional voice, noted for extended instrumental and vocal techniques and overt theatricality, clothed in a tonal and poetic musical tapestry. In his well-known Makrokosmos I and II for amplified piano, Crumb places foreign objects on the strings of a piano and amplifies the sound. Crumb calls Processional (1983) an ‘experiment in harmonic chemistry.’ Its use of major chords and a damping pedal produce sounds that are ‘mysterious’ and ‘echo.’
A Little Suite for Christmas, A.D. 1979 was inspired by Giotto’s frescoes in the Arena Chapel at Padua. Crumb admired the ‘childlike, nearly innocent style’ in the paintings. He achieves a magical bell-like sound using the upper registers of the piano in The Visitation. The Shepard’s Noel uses plucking, muting and sliding across the strings to produce a ghost-like ambience. A dainty, drum-like sound in Adoration of the Magi uses mutes on the end of the strings. In Canticle of the Holy Night, Crumb has the pianist strum directly on the strings, ‘like a minstrel’s harp.’ These techniques create a magical atmosphere that create an aural picture of Giotto’s painting. It find it the most interesting work on the CD.
Steven Osborne is a sensitive pianist and the sound is clear and appropriately reverberant. Pianophiles will be fascinated and enthralled by the music on this recording. Others will need some patience to reap the rewards.