MORTON FELDMAN: Orchestra – Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/ Brad Lubman – Mode 238, 63 min. ****:
I didn’t know Morton Feldman wrote orchestral works. Did you? Seems unbelievable that the composer of the six-hour String Quartet No. 2 and the 4½ hour chamber work For Philip Guston would write orchestral pieces clocking at less than 20 minutes each. Yet he did, and this disc features debuts of all five perplexing, riveting, and ultimately clever works.
The first work, “Intersection 1 (1951),” is a bad-boy, shock-the-philistines type of piece. It’s a bit noisy and probably was shocking to early ‘50s ears. It is also aleatory, consisting of sporadic outpourings by the musicians playing from a “graphic score.” This meant that Feldman wrote down whatever musical qualities he found important and left others indeterminate. Since there has never been a recording, the musicologist Samuel Clay Birmaher created a performing version in ways too detailed to get into here. In this piece you can see beginnings of the sound packets approach that Feldman used most of his life. It’s all quite random and reminiscent of John Cage’s early work. You will find it both frenetic and exciting, but hardly exasperating.
With “Structures (1962)” Feldman’s musical landscape starts to change, like what you see if you drive cautiously from northern Arizona to Colorado. Gone is the purpose of modernism and in its place is an exploration of chords and a sampling of instrumental timbres. There is that vague, unsettling foreboding that never develops into the truly scary. Eleven years have passed and Feldman has turned into a force to be studied and (almost) reckoned with. It’s not a dynamic piece, but it makes up for it in mystery.
Not long ago the composer David MacBride led a music appreciation class at the Hartt School in Hartford, Connecticut. He played a recording of a late Feldman chamber work for the students. Rather than pick apart its mystery, he sat back and said “Listen to that chord! And this one here, extraordinary!” He applauded one chord after another until the piece ended. And that’s all he did. He might as well have been leading a discussion of “Of Time and the Instrumental Factor (1969).” The piece is really a collection of marvelous tutti chords that collide, blend and augment. One chord might start with a group of instruments and open up to another group, which inflate the chord with contrasting and complementing sounds. It’s also done a bit more skillfully than in the previous two pieces.
“Voice and Instruments (1972)” is an intriguing number with soprano Martha Cluver singing a vocalise to 16 minutes of more bewitching chords. It’s a mood piece with hardly a shred of rhythm. But it’s hypnotic, and that’s all that seems to matter.
With supreme self-confidence the final piece begins, unpretentiously dubbed Orchestra (1979). Composed eight years before the composer died, it shows a maturing of his creative process as he integrates new instruments, like percussion. (Still not much rhythm, however.) He also demonstrates his penchant to repeat sections over and over, sometimes with minute differences that you have to listen to quite closely to catch. He likes to break patterns he sets up; he even throws in several jarring chords, some of them, bordering on angry outbursts. Perhaps, like Papa Haydn, he wanted to ensure the audience did not fall asleep. Or maybe he wanted to counter criticisms that his later pieces were a bit soporific (and they are). The longest piece on this disc, Orchestra, is a fully developed small masterpiece, with moods consistently expressed but never anticipated. The glissandos are slippery little devils. Listen for them. The piece even has a coda. Here Feldman’s music does not just stop, it ends decisively, like W.H. Auden’s poem “As I Walked Out One Evening.”
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