Morton Feldman – Composer Portrait

Violin and Orchestra
Rothko Chapel
Coptic Light

Isabelle Faust (violin)
Elizabeth Poole (soprano)
Penny Vickers (contralto)
Norbert Blume (viola)
Colin Currie (percussion)
Elizabeth Burley (celesta)
BBC Singers
BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Martyn Brabbins

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 1 February, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

An undoubted highlight of the BBC’s 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 Nono’s last decade, Feldman’s 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 The traditional bravura relationship between soloist and orchestra has been replaced by the varied weighting of sounds, by shifts and contrasts in colour, and between single and blended timbres.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 Faust’s 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 Feldman’s 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 chapel’s dedication, a year after Rothko’s 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 Feldman’s 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 Blume’s 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 Christ’s 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 Feldman’s 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. Feldman’s 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 work’s half-hour span; the subtlest shift in orchestration can feel like a profound musical statement. Like so much of Feldman’s later work, it effortlessly transcends musical systems, embodying discipline and refinement in its inner intensity.

Brabbins secured an account that did justice to the music’s 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.

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