Violin and Orchestra
Isabelle Faust (violin)
Elizabeth Poole (soprano)
Penny Vickers (contralto)
Norbert Blume (viola)
Colin Currie (percussion)
Elizabeth Burley (celesta)
BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Martyn Brabbins
Morton Feldman Composer Portrait
Friday, February 01, 2002 Barbican Hall, London
Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
An undoubted highlight of the BBCs current season. Morton Feldman (1926-87) has often been linked with John Cage and the New York School of Abstract Expressionist painters. Yet there is a much wider range to his musical thinking than this alone might suggest notably in the often-epic length of the works from his last decade of composing. The concern here is with scale rather than form and the evolution of musical time. Along with the similarly uncompromising in aesthetic if not in sound work of Luigi Nonos last decade, Feldmans likely status as one of the most influential post-war composers rests on his having taken musical syntax to a sonically and emotionally heightened level.
At almost 57 minutes, Violin and Orchestra (1978-9) is a medium-length example of his latter-day approach. This is the last of a series of pieces Feldman composed for solo instrument and orchestra concertos in implication only. The traditional bravura relationship between soloist and orchestra has been replaced by the varied weighting of sounds, by shifts and contrasts in colour, and between single and blended timbres. Through these means, Feldman creates his own sense of scale: for all the slowness of clock time tempo, musical content is eventful in its metamorphosis of the few recurrent notes, chords and harmonies through a wide spectrum of invention: an immense mosaic whose outer limits remain tantalisingly out of reach. Isabelle Fausts reticent but focused manner, sparing and thoughtful in its use of vibrato, was ideally suited to this music. A deep end introduction maybe, but a representative and persuasively realised one.
Rothko Chapel (1971) has established itself as Feldmans most played and accessible major work, and is also his most outwardly expressive piece. The chapel in question, at the University of St Thomas in Houston, was founded as a sanctuary for people of every spiritual belief. Mark Rothko was commissioned to produce canvasses that would be integral to the building. His huge, single-coloured creations duly set up what was intended to be a dynamic interaction between paint, architecture and light. For the chapels dedication, a year after Rothkos suicide, Feldman was invited to write its musical equivalent.
Characteristically calm and slow-moving, the repetition of static vocal harmonies aptly evokes the hue of the paintings. The outcome is meditative and spiritual, though without any specific religious designation. Towards the close, the viola plays a folk-tinged melody that may refer back, as he implied, to Feldmans youth; but, in its melancholic tinge, may relate to his Jewishness and the pain of the Holocaust. The performance was lucid but not ideally balanced in the relationship between voices and ensemble, though the solo contributions of Elizabeth Poole and Jenny Vickers were as responsive as Norbert Blumes unforced viola playing, and the dynamic gradations of the BBC Singers really did evoke aurally the sense of Rothko canvasses emerging and receding in space.
In the Graeco-Roman Egypt of late antiquity, the Copts direct descendants of the ancient Egyptians maintained that Christs nature remained altogether divine, even though he assumed a physical body subject to the human life-cycle. Commissioned from the New York Philharmonic for its eightieth anniversary, Coptic Light (1986) was Feldmans attempt to convey the sound of the twentieth-century symphony orchestra , as it might be understood in the far future.
The sound-fabric, subtly interwoven and with a subtle glow, proceeds without a sense of beginning or conclusion, as if some fragment of a vaster design. Feldmans interest in Iranian and Anatolian rugs particularly their unsystematic repetition of colour, is reflected in the degree to which Feldman unpicks the musical sound and structure. The blurring of edges between melody and harmony is balanced by the fastidiousness of harmonic change over the works half-hour span; the subtlest shift in orchestration can feel like a profound musical statement. Like so much of Feldmans later work, it effortlessly transcends musical systems, embodying discipline and refinement in its inner intensity.
Brabbins secured an account that did justice to the musics many-layered finesse, with the latter stages bringing out a tangible and very necessary sense of harmonic-rhythmic motion. His solo call at the end of the performance was well deserved, the small but appreciative audience confirming feelings that, while Feldman may never enjoy the current popularity of John Adams, his musical legacy will be the one to endure further. In bringing his work a little more closely into focus, this portrait concert more than fulfilled its purpose.