Morton Feldman: For Bunita Marcus

Steffen Schleiermarcher (piano); MDG (MDG 613-1522-2)

13 March 2009 4.5 stars

SchleiermarcherFollowing Steffen Schleiermacher's well-received recording of Morton Feldman's Triadic Memories in September, comes this, another brave leap from the pianist into the aether of time, silence, and memory unique to that composer's music, particularly his late works. (For Bunita Marcus was written in 1985, two years before the composer's death).

The recordings constitute parts one and two of a series on Feldman's late works for piano that is being released on the MDG label. As with the first release, the sound here is excellent; non-invasive, resonant, and clear. The swimming timbres and revolving density of the work are conveyed with sympathy by the engineers.

Schleiermacher himself once again excels- sheer force of concentration and sensitivity to poetic affect, rather than traditional technical excellence, are required in this music, and the pianist is clearly well attuned to the singularity of the aesthetic. Listening to this performance, and indeed to any capable dialogue with Feldman's late work, one suddenly feels the overdetermination on the one hand, and the embarrassing futility of event on the other, of most composers' work. Form and theme, in the traditional sense, are external to Feldman. Not for him the arrogant dialectical workings of theme and counter-theme, of tension and release, neither does he pursue a domination of sound. His goal is to nurture a humble attention to the multimodality of common tones, of tiny cells which he ever so gracefully manipulates in profile, weighting, and register, to haunt the common stratification of musical time and normal time, and achieve a ghostly flickering all of his own. Humility, openness to nothingness and to music's unacknowledged natural state, silence, float through his singular orbit. Haunting, the hauntological, the ghost of human-made music, traces through this sound. The two alter each other, and alter the listener too.

For Bunita Marcus, at only 71 minutes in length (in this recording), falls far short of the extremes established in some of Feldman's other works. But its starkness, its acute reduction to the barest of material (basically a three-note set changing endlessly through modulations of register, rhythm and intensity), places it towards the more concentrated and denuded end of his late repertoire. Yet the denudation leads to great richness in the scale of events within the piece. Speaking through the stasis of flickering tones, certain events take on an enormous standing (despite their apparent smallness in sound or detail), a sort of drastic turning of the poetic screw, such that the listener reaches a plateau-state of awe, of bliss, at a higher remove from convention. The spiked staccato at minute nine, the sudden insistence and registral displacement between minutes eleven and sixteen, the introduction of resonating chordal sonorities in minute twenty, the feeling of tonal and dynamic cadence in the deep low tones of minutes forty-one and fifty, the almost impossible withdrawal into greater abstraction and temporal contraction from minute sixty, these are all features amongst many of this spectral, magical music.

The perpetual, as suggested by the pianist in his very interesting sleeve notes, is the time-state to which this music aspires. Schleiermacher achieves this effect through his graceful, tensile playing that lies right at the edge of definition throughout. It something of a jolt when the music finally stops (though even that event is mediated by ambiguity), and you find yourself faced yet again with the normal ticking of clocks, and all the associations brought thereof.

By Stephen Graham

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CD Review: The first volume in MDG's series on Feldman's late works (MDG 613 1521-2)
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