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Monday, February 13, 2006
morton feldman: complete violin/viola and piano works
morton feldman: complete violin/viola and piano works
Christina Fong (violin/viola), Paul Hersey (piano)

Disc 1:
1. [Sonata] for Violin and Piano (1945) I. Allegro [5:33]
2. [Sonata] for Violin and Piano (1945) II. Andante affettuoso [5:04]
3. [Sonata] for Violin and Piano (1945) III. Allegro vivace [3:27]
4. Piece (1950) [1:49]
5. Projection 4 (1951) [4:41]
6. Extensions 1 (1951) [5:00]
7. Vertical Thoughts 2 (1963) [4:07]
8. The Viola in My Life 3 (1970) [4:33]
9. Spring of Chosroes (1977) [13:13]
10. [Composition] for Violin (1984) [10:47]

Disc 2:
1. For Aaron Copland (1981) [4 minutes]
2. For John Cage (1982) [66 minutes]

Feldman composed a good deal of music for strings, especially viola and violin. So it's a great thing to have this first recording of his complete works for violin/viola +/- piano on a 2-CD set, fortuitously released on Feldman's 80th birthday. Now, there is another recording by Marc Sabat of the "complete" music for violin and piano, but just as with several other "complete" albums (the piano works of Ives and the "complete" works of Ruggles come to mind) other works have come to light in the interim making such albums actually incomplete (to no one's fault, of course---it's hard to see how an album of "Nearly Complete" or "Almost Complete" works would have much of a market). In addition to what is represented on the Sabat album, we now know of an early Sonata for Violin and Piano as well as a Composition for solo violin from 1984, both of which are included on this album, expertly and sensitively performed by Christina Fong (violin and viola) and Paul Hersey on piano. In addition to the complete violin +/- piano works, this album has the bonus of a work for viola and piano (The Viola in My LIfe 3).

I'll cut to the chase and say that this is the best album I've heard this year and think it should remain one of the more significant releases of the year. The performances are expert and perhaps definitive. While I only have an incomplete score of the 1984 Composition and a few measures I found on the Web from Spring of Chosroes, there was nothing I heard to suggest that the performers deviated from Feldman's intent. Some of the subtle, and very difficult, metrics at the opening of Spring of Chosroes were performed quite exactingly based on that score fragment. On the other hand, the performance of the 1984 Composition is not metrically perfect or mechanical, but rather an appropriate and very compelling interpretation of the music, which is how it should be. Interestingly, the performance of For John Cage is much shorter than that of Marc Sabat's (66 minutes vs 82). I don't have a sense of which is better. There is a frequent opinion I see on Feldman discussion groups that longer = better. Part of that, I think, is that for those of us who love Feldman's music, the longer we have to listen to it, the better. But that does not necessarily mean that shorter performances are wrong or bad; consider Joan LaBarbara's definitive performance of Three Voices, which she takes at twice the speed of what Feldman had originally intended.

The works are arranged in chronological order, which makes it very useful to see the evolution of Feldman's style. Feldman composed these pieces over the span of nearly four decades, making them a great introduction for those who are not really familiar with his music. It's also interesting that some of the later works, such as Spring of Chosroes and For John Cage contain ideas found in several later works; indeed, there are numerous commonalities among different Feldman works, but they never sound recycled or stale to my ears.

The 1945 Sonata is a pleasant work in a classic format, one that sounds little like the Feldman to come. It was written as a student, and this represents the work's first recording. It's not much different from what Vaughn Williams was writing at the time. Piece, which was written just five years afterwards, is considerably shorter, even Webernian. That work gives way to the graphically-notated piece Projection 4, which will vary considerably from one performance to the next. In the case of Projection 4, the pitches are not specified. Eventually, Feldman found that his own pitch choices were preferable to those chosen by many performers, and he gravitated back towards standard notation, as is seen in the Extensions series of works. However, even within standard notation, Feldman's music (particularly that for strings) has its own interesting features, such as non-standard note spellings (Cb rather than B, F-double sharp rather than G) and highly complex metric patterns.

I have a genuine fondness for Vertical Thoughts 2, which was the first piece of Feldman's I ever heard (in a live concert by violinist Eugene Gratovich and pianist/composer George Flynn on the South Side of Chicago during the early 80's). It is a brief, quiet work that is similar to the other works in the "vertical thoughts" group Feldman wrote in the early 60's. The Viola in My Life 3 represents a phase of Feldman's output in which he wrote several pieces that featured viola, including Rothko Chapel. It strikes me as fairly melodic, but not terribly memorable compared with several other Feldman works from that period.

Spring of Chosroes, the second-longest work on this album, is one of the best things on this 2-CD set. Written at the beginning of Feldman's last decade, like Piano, it contains harbingers of Feldman's much longer Trio and even the String Quartet #1. It is rhythmically difficult; excruciatingly so. The violinist must execute quick rhythmic changes from arco to pizzicato, while playing very quietly. It's an incredible piece, and almost a shame it's only 15 minutes long.

Composition was recently discovered, and dates from 1984. This represents its first commercial recording. It consists of repeated measures of mostly two-note chords for solo violin, played con sordino, much of which is written with unconventional pitches as mentioned earlier. For this reason, some performers of Feldman's violin music (most notably Paul Zukofsky and his former student Marc Sabat) have considered the notation to suggest Feldman's intention of a microtonal system. I'm of the opinion that had Feldman wanted to write microtonal music, he would have used appropriate notation and made his intentions clear. For that reason, I'm delighted that Christina Fong took a purist approach to this performance, and did not engage in microtones. I'm just not sure it was Feldman's intent, but certainly respect others who have a different opinion, and it's interesting to compare both this version and the microtonal version of Sabat. Personally, I find the microtonal version grates on my nerves. Microtones do wonderful things in music for which they were clearly intended (some Ives, Partch, Young, Lutoslawski, even Copland's early Vitebsk). I'm just not sure it works here. What I think Feldman was after was more of an inflection (what I recall he referred to as a "Jewish octave", or something like that, in reference to many Russian-Jewish violinists of his day who used subtle pitch variations for coloristic and emotional purposes), rather than true just intonation. I also strongly suspect that Feldman was also trying to point out, through his notation, that a D is not always a D---sometimes it is really a Ebb or a C##.

For Aaron Copland is a brief work written during a period when most people think of Feldman's music as being very long. It sort of sounds Copland-ish to some people's ears, but not to mine.

The major work on this album is the 66-minute For John Cage, which has many musical phrases in common with other late works of Feldman's. Just within the first 30 minutes, I was able to pick out measures that are also featured (at least to my ears) in his String Quartet #2, Piano and String Quartet, Patterns in a Chromatic Field, and Violin and Orchestra. For John Cage inhabits a world not far removed from another long composition for a treble clef-based instrument with piano (For Christian Wolff). The piece is something that more violinists should take under their wings; there are several recordings of For John Cage currently available, but it needs to be heard more often in live performance.

In terms of the album, the liner notes by John Story and Ingvar Loco Nordin are informative, and the "Free the Panchen Lama" sticker is very welcome. I'm glad that OgreOgress Productions is a socially conscious company. The CDs might have benefitted from a more durable and protective enclosure, but for an independent label on a tight budget, the priority seems to be on getting new and underperformed music out there on disc rather than release "commercial" music in a pretty CD case.

Overall, this is a really important two-CD set: the first recordings of Sonata for Violin and Piano and Composition for Violin. It is also the first recording of the complete works of Feldman for violin and viola +/- piano. At least "complete" as of today; it is always possible that additional works for violin or viola could be discovered. Judging from Feldman's output as presented in this two-CD set, that would be a very wonderful thing.


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