I sat in a room this afternoon and took an exam, under strict exam conditions. First time I’ve done that for nearly two decades now. A weird, and somewhat stressful experience that I don’t fancy doing again any time soon. Anyway I got home from London early enough to unwind a little with a glass of average Chablis, half a packet of pistachio cookies and a few spins through of a disc of Morton Feldman’s music. That’s as good a way to relax as any if you ask me. I badly need to be able to spend more time than I have so far with the recent Tilbury DVD of Feldman released on Matchless, but I really do need to give over the best part of a day to that veritable treasure trove. For now though I have been listening to a disc that has been sat here unplayed for a month or so, the third in the MDG Late Piano Works Series performed by Steffen Schleiermacher. I bought, played and quite enjoyed the first two discs in the series a couple of years back now. Those two discs contained the two late masterpieces, For Bunita Marcus and Triadic Memories, and to be honest I thought maybe that would be it for the series, but no, this third disc has now arrived.
The CD contains two compositions. The first is Piano, (sometimes known as Piano 77) which, having been written some ten years before his death possibly stretches the definition of “late piano works” a little, and also Palais de Mari, one of the composer’s very last pieces written in 1986. I already have five or six versions of Piano amongst my Feldman collection (which now spans all of a four foot wide shelf) and maybe twice as many again recordings of Palais de Mari, but I was interested to hear what Steffen Schleiermacher would make of them, given my enjoyment of the first two discs in the series. Almost a year ago I wrote briefly about his Bunita Marcus disc here and stated in the post that I would have to try and track down some of Schleiermacher’s massive series of recordings of the complete John Cage piano works. With almost inevitable displeasure I have to announce that I still haven’t done this. Maybe I will soon.
Piano is an unusual work when compared against the rest of Feldman’s catalogue. It was, I think, the first “longer” piano piece that he wrote, yet compared to the lengthy works that he finished his career with, the thirty-two minute composition here is relatively brief. The unusual nature of the piece comes through its musical form however. It is far more impatient than the later long works. It runs through a series of small patterns and musical forms just as the later pieces do, but so much quicker. Although the pace of the piece is not really any quicker per se, each individual idea is worked through so much quicker before moving on. The other way this piece differs greatly from late Feldman in general is the use of a sudden change in volume dynamic half the way through. All of a sudden, after having to struggle to hear the music clearly above the sounds of my home a cluster of notes suddenly booms out, taking you completely by surprise. It feels on this recording that this shift is far more marked than on other recordings, but then I haven’t played any of them for quite a while now so I could be wrong. I don’t remember feeling so suddenly surprised by a Feldman recording before though. Piano does feel a little like Uncle Morty on steroids. The music’s energy does come from the short-term narrative of the piece rather than a gradual cumulative progression as found on Bunita and Memories. I find myself having to shift my listening style here, following in a more engaged, “in the moment” manner rather than letting the sounds drift around me as I wallow in the scale of the larger works. Schleiermacher does a good job here, his playing has a certain intensity to it I enjoy, and it feels like he knows the pieces well. The recording is slightly murky, which is ironic given my criticism of the For Bunita Marcus release for being
a little sprightly and top heavy. I guess I’m difficult to please when it comes to Feldman, and I guess I have been spoilt by Sebastian Lexer’s sound engineering work of late.
Palais de Mari is in many ways at the opposite end of the Feldman spectrum to Piano. In some ways it has always felt a bit like Feldman-lite to me. Written after both Bunita Marcus and Triadic Memories, Palais de Mari returns to a shorter (twenty-two minutes here) format, yet retains the wistful, distantly repetitive structures. It always feels to my more cynical side that the piece was written so that his late piano music could be slid into a concert bill easily without having to devote the whole evening to the performance. I am of course probably wrong, but that is how the piece comes across. When we have the two longer piano masterworks it is hard to know why anyone would select this particular recording off of the shelf to play it. As lovely as it is (and believe me its gorgeous) it does feel a bit like a last, half-hearted throw of the dice from Feldman to keep the people that didn’t have the patience for the lengthy scores happy. Still, Schleiermacher’s rendition is respectful and accomplished, and I have enjoyed listening to it a lot tonight. Now as the last dregs of the Chablis linger at the bottom of the glass, and my neck is beginning to struggle to keep my head upright Palais enters the last few minutes of its last play this thoroughly enjoyable evening.