Spot the difference

April 29, 2007

Following a difficult week I took the rare opportunity provided Saturday evening by a for once peaceful Pinnell Towers to switch off my phone, and with it the rest of the world and spend some time alone, slouched on the sofa with a chilled bottle of chardonnay, a good book and three different versions of Morton Feldman’s For Bunita Marcus.

At around an hour and a quarter in length, listening with close attention to three consecutive recordings of this beautifully melancholic, yet expansive, challenging work for solo piano may not seem the most relaxing way to spend your time, but I found the evening very enjoyable and somewhat enlightening.

Of the three recordings of For Bunita Marcus I absorbed, two were played by John Tilbury. The first, his recognised masterpiece realisation from 1990 makes up one quarter of the 4CD box set of Tilbury’s Feldman recordings on the LondonHALL label that has long been a favourite of mine. The other Tilbury recording was made by David Reid a few weeks back in a Dublin church, where we attended the last night of the i and e Festival. The recording I played was actually a matrix combination I put together using two simultaneous recordings David made that evening, one from microphones placed insde the piano, the other from outside. A very beautiful recording it is too.

So these two Tilbury renditions were recorded seventeen years apart, in very different circumstances, one in a church, the other in an Austrian studio, and with very different pianos, yet they are both very clearly Tilbury’s work. I sandwiched these recordings on Saturday evening with a recent acquisition, Markus HinterhÃ¥user’s 1995 recording of For Bunita Marcus on the Col Legno label.

Now five or six years ago my listening experience and skill with this area of music was somewhat more pedestrian than it is today. I’d have struggled to find differences between the two pianist’s work beyond the obvious variances between the technical elements, microphone quality and placement etc.. Today however, the individual voices of the two pianists are clear and markedly different to these ears.

The two Tilbury recordings both exude a certain warmth and sensuality that is perhaps less evident in the Hinterhåuser. Tilbury seems to roll his fingers over the keys, caressing them rather than striking them, moulding each note softly. There seems to be longer breaths between notes that somehow tie together the events better. Hinterhåuser is also a highly skilled pianist with a sensitive touch, but his playing seemed slightly sharper, with more acutely defined notes picked out, each separated from others around it.

The Dublin Tilbury recording is some eight minutes longer than both the LondonHALL disc and the HinterhÃ¥user. Obviously no extra notes have been added, so the performance was played approximately 10% slower than the other two. Chatting with Tilbury afterwards, he told me it had felt “freer” than he had played the piece before. It certainly sounds looser, more relaxed, languid, and its my favourite of the three recordings.

The slower pace of the Dublin set can probably be explained in a few ways. The naturally relaxed atmosphere of Dublin on a Sunday evening no doubt played its part. The pressures of studio time on the LondonHALL recording maybe had a conscious impact back in 1990 and at 77 minutes it stretches the capacity of a sngle CD to the limit, a longer rendition of the work would have to be spread over two discs. There is also the obvious point that in 2007 Tilbury is an older, more relaxed pianist than seventeen years ago and this doubtlessly has an impact.

So three recordings of one fully notated piece of piano music but each sounding quite different if you listen intently enough. The HinterhÃ¥user recording is still a beautiful work. If I hadn’t heard the Tilbury recordings I would be singing its praises from my usual hyperbolic high, but last night, listening in dim light and fuelled by alcohol it took a definite third place behind the other two recordings, with the Dublin rendition in particular out in front.

So why make this post? Well apart from pointing any stray googlers that have happened to land at this blog towards Feldman’s work, I wanted to share my experience of listening to this music in this manner. This blog’s name, Learning to listen was carefully chosen. As tastes evolve and we all grow a little older perhaps we each learn how to listen a little differently. Last night my ears were attuned to the subtle nuances in the pianist’s playing, the sensuality, the passion. It was less about concentration and more about feeling. Five or six years ago I’d have struggled to have done that. I’ve grown up a lot as a listener.

Live Tilbury shot courtesy of Fergus Kelly

Comments (0)

Leave a Reply