Morton Feldman: The Late Piano Works Volume 1: Triadic Memories

Steffen Schleiermacher (MDG 613 1521-2)

29 September 2008 4 stars

Feldman Piano Works Vol.1Triadic Memories for solo piano is from Feldman's late period. During the phase of his career from the seventies onwards, Feldman experimented in a striking and unconventional way with extended duration, composing pieces featuring etiolated, concentrated material and lasting anything from eighty minutes to six hours long – the latter is the case for his rarely-performed and somewhat infamous second string quartet. This in theory might make for a boring experience for the listener. The singular effect achieved though is on the contrary one hypnotic and quite startling, the music seeming to take place outside of normal time as it quietly and slowly weaves together cells of pared-down sonority, cascading in rigorously altered repetitions – gestures that are never the same in their recurrence and which combine over time to evoke a vast and unexplained stasis at their heart.

Steffen Schleiermacher takes on the piece here as the first in a series of recordings of the late piano works for the German MDG label. He is a distinguished performer, having previously recorded solo collections of Cage, Riley and Glass for MDG as well as collections from less well known composers – for example, from the early twentieth century Czech avant-garde. His performance here of the difficult material is commanding and concentrated throughout. The interstices of the music are communicated effectively and a great respect for the material comes across. Schleiermacher also provides the sleeve notes, wherein the music is discussed in relation to musical form and its articulation of musical space and time. Explored as well is Feldman's fascination with the large textile weavings of Anatolian nomads, whose carpet work Feldman was exposed to while working at his father's textile company and which provided the composer with an inspiration in their working method of never repeating the same pattern in the same way twice.

And it is indeed incredible the amount of material the composer produces out of the cell which opens the piece seemingly already in mid-flow, and recurring intermittently throughout, never in the same form. One might say that there actually is no primary form, only that principle that would see its sonority always appear different over time. Dynamically, the score directs the performer to articulate the notation as soft as possible with the reverb pedal sustained constantly throughout – the delicacy of the sound having maximum pronunciation, and producing an incessantly evocative effect without ever giving anything of its nature away. In this it has a perhaps similar effect to the large canvasses of Mark Rothko, a contemporary of Feldman in the New York scene.

Although Schleiermacher writes in his notes that Triadic Memories is ninety minutes in performance (referring to it as 'a rather short piece'), the recording here is just over eighty minutes, and just enough, as it happens, to fit onto one compact disc. The quality of the recording aims to capture the feeling of live performance, and was recorded in a concert hall (we are not told which one) without any subsequent studio manipulation of its sound. The record benefits greatly from this ethos and captures both work and performance well.

One thing the listener will notice if they are already familiar with the work is Schleiermacher's style in conveying it, rendering it as he does with some of the passages in rubato. This is particularly striking in the passage that opens the music – its metronomic repetitions here rendered in a swaying, back-and-forth manner, the rhythm altered between each cell. It is up to the listener whether this is to their taste or not: I personally find it less appropriate than a more straightforward rendition of the score. Schleiermacher's rationale, as explained in his notes, is that 'the interpreter has to detect the composer's idea in the score and transform it accordingly… to avoid mechanical symmetry by making use of subtle differentiation in rhythm as well as tone colour.' The rhythmic monotony of the score and the effect it should have suffers somewhat from the liberal approach here taken – though it is a unique approach and provides a slightly different version of the piece to the others available, which are also generally longer.

Feldman was a man whose affable and down-to-earth demeanour belied perhaps the depth and studiousness of thought that went into his works and which led to the development of so personal and original a style. Although rarely wont to venture too grand or pretentious a justification of his work, he offered that the listener might try to see it in different terms than those in which they might be programmed to think of it: 'Personally, I think the reason the pieces are so long is that form, as I understand it, no longer exists… If one listens to my pieces, they seem to fit into the temporal landscape I provide. Would you say that The Odyssey is too long? I feel that pieces have a natural length, in order that they can live out their lives.' The impression upon listening here fits the French composer Gérard Grisey's description of a contemporary music whose 'wintry slowness will be the reversed echo of a stress-ridden world rushing towards its end.' Certainly there is the sense of a music that is recovering something. By the time of its finish after its extended duration it doesn't seem to come to an end at all, and barely seems to have happened; the listener readjusts their sense of time to the prevailing one, or else puts back on the CD.

By Liam Cagney