Morton Feldman – Crippled Symmetry: at June in Buffalo

Morton Feldman’s later works evolve slowly, as if entropically, and often over relatively extreme durations (“For Philip Guston” (1983) lasts four hours; the String Quartet No. 2 (also 1983) six hours; such works are practically presentable only on DVD). Yet because the 90 minutes of “Crippled Symmetry” (for flutes, piano, celesta, glockenspiel and vibraphone) are performed so beautifully by the Feldman Soloists, it seems concise.

The piece for flute, percussion and piano, was composed by Feldman for the Feldman Soloists, and received its first performance by them in 1983, just four years before the composer’s death.

The ensemble – formerly Morton Feldman and Soloists – was established in the 70s at the university in Buffalo, New York, where Feldman was then a teacher. He originally played piano alongside the current trio, which is: Eberhard Blum (here playing flute, alto flute, and bass flute), Jan Williams (glockenspiel, vibraphone), and Nils Vigeland (piano, celesta).

An earlier version of “Crippled Symmetry” was recorded by the Soloists – along with “Why Patterns?”, an earlier Feldman composition – for the hat ART label in 1990 (an album no longer in print).

This new version was recorded live, in June 2000, in Buffalo, NY (hence the album title). It is produced by Frozen Reeds, a new Finnish label, on two CDs that come beautifully packaged within a slim gatefold card sleeve in lined paper inners. More importantly, the recorded sound is deep, crisp and immediate, conveying the subtlest gradations in timbre as radiant energy.

The freshness of this interpretation is immensely appealing. The soloists interpret Feldman’s minimal notations as figures pulsing with vigorous life despite the dreamlike feeling of weightless suspension conjured by the metallophones and ideophone (celeste). Juxtaposing motifs that resonate in seemingly random but vividly effective harmonic patterns, the ensemble interact with apparently intuitive awareness of one another’s responses.

In his illuminating liner notes, Eberhard Blum describes how the three “independent yet inter-related parts” of the piece were conceived “to co-exist in such a way that…even the slightest inexactitude in performing the complex rhythmical figures has the effect that the three parts become superimposed in a different way. …(To have) calculated and notated exactly what ought to have been played simultaneously would have destroyed the work’s innermost mystery.”

That mystery here is vividly expressed by the intuitive exactitude of the trio’s modulation of attack, sustain and reverberation.

While earlier pieces such as “Rothko Chapel” (1971) remain arguably the best place to start with Feldman’s music (there’s a 1991 recording, paired with “Why Patterns?”, on New Albion), this superb album is certainly among the best and most accessible.

You can sample the first two minutes on the Frozen Reeds website.

Related Post
The Arditti Quartet and Gilbert Nouno play Jonathan Harvey’s String Quartet no. 4 at LSO St Luke’s, January 2012

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