Morton Feldman’s star appears to be in the ascendant, though he’d surely disapprove of any suggestion of an explosion of interest in his music: a quiet murmur would be more fitting. Exactly why his music speaks so profoundly in the right hands is as difficult to tie down as trying to assimilate the processes which underpin the notes. But what’s not to love about a composer who thought so deeply about every sound, and valued the silences between them so much? Steven Bruns’ sleeve essay gives us a choice quote explaining why Feldman wasn’t interested in following any strict compositional school: 'Instead of the twelve-note concept, I’m involved with all the 88 notes.' Don't attempt to understand what's going on; just enjoy the ride. Feldman’s early Intermission 5 contains several surprises in the form of four fortissimo chords: more typical are the almost imperceptibly quiet chimes heard between them. 1952’s Piano Piece is head-scratchingly odd, but wondrous: a slow sequence of single notes alternating between right and left hand. How lucky we are to have this outré repertoire played by the great Steven Osborne. He tackles the piece with disarming sincerity and sensitivity. This can’t be technically difficult to perform, but the musical challenges are enormous. More substantial is Feldman’s late Palais de Mari, 26 minutes of soft, shimmering magic. Osborne is again terrific. You can’t switch him off.
The Feldman works are coupled with music by his contemporary George Crumb. Processional is described as 'an experiment in harmonic chemistry', Crumb’s liberal use of the sustain pedal creating mesmeric effects at the piece’s climax as a succession of loud chords blur into a giddying mass of sound. Then there’s A Little Suite for Christmas, A.D. 1979, a seven part ‘aural tableau’ inspired by a Giotto fresco. Osborne gamely embraces Crumb’s subtle use of ‘extended techniques’, often placing one hand directly onto the piano strings, and strumming them like a lyre in “Canticle of the Holy Night”. Again, the sustained pedal works its magic, the whole work exuding quiet radiance.
Extraordinary, and my new favourite Christmas piece. A superb disc, and one to convert any Feldmanphobes out there.