String Quartet (1979)
The Group for Contemporary Music
[Benjamin Hudson & Carol Zeavin (violins), Lois Martin (viola) & Joshua Gordon (cello)
Recorded on 11 & 12 January 1993 in the Recital Hall, Music Division, State University of New York, Purchase
Reviewed by: Morgan Hayes
Reviewed: February 2006
CD No: NAXOS 8.559190
Duration: 79 minutes
Naxos has bought us the likes of Boulez, Cage and Carter and is now edging a bit further in the direction of the exotic with Morton Feldman (1926-1987), courtesy of what was previously a Koch Classics release.
String Quartet (1979) is a pivotal work in Feldman’s canon marking one of his first departures from more conventional time-frames and, as befits such a bold experiment, there are signs of trepidation in grappling with the scale of the proceedings. How much material do you need for a single-movement piece that can last up to 90 minutes?
If you’re familiar with Feldman’s other long pieces from the 1980s, then String Quartet (1979) presents a surprising onslaught of information. Within the first five minutes alone there is a fortissimo outburst, agitated pizzicatos, glissandos, weaving chromatic lines, and an array of extended string techniques. I tend to feel that Feldman is at his most compelling (especially over these longer time spans) when the drama is kept to a minimum.
Most problematic in String Quartet (1979) are the fortissimo outbursts within this world of glacial pianissimos, where they can seem pasted on to keep the listener awake. Some years later, in Piano and String Quartet (1985) – Feldman totally unambiguous in his descriptions – the first appearance of a pizzicato note can take on earth-shattering proportions and the leisurely unfolding of events there strikes me as more successful.
However, there is plenty to cherish in Feldman’s (first) string quartet, the composer’s direction being that the instruments’ mutes should be used throughout the work. Michael Tilson Thomas has memorably described Feldman as “Deluxe Webern” and one is often struck by those luminous (almost diatonic) chords casting shafts of light across the more typical but equally well judged chromatic harmonies. These moments are to be savoured, and there is a particularly opulent example at 7’26”.
While the Group for Contemporary Music is spared the stamina problems presented by a live perfromance (which pale in comparison with Feldman’s epic, six-hour, second string quartet) the musicians still have to negotiate their way through the perils of Feldman’s idiosyncratic notation: weird note spellings that can denote different tunings, bar lengths drawn the same size regardless of the number of beats, and highly intricate rhythms which should never be rendered stiff or metronomic. In all these respects these four players successfully meet the challenge.
Morton Feldman is well represented on CD, and this Naxos re-issue is a very plausible (and budget-price) introduction to his fascinating world. I’d recommend the first-time Feldman purchaser also hear Violin and Orchestra, Coptic Light, Rothko Chapel, and Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello. He weaves a very special magic in all these pieces.