Rob Pennock

Morton Feldman (1926-87) and George Crumb (b.1929) have been called avant-garde composers (whatever that means) but it would be difficult to imagine two such radically different approaches to the 20th centuries unresolved search for a new musical language pioneered by Schoenberg in 1908, in that Feldman often favoured incredibly sparse textures, where there are single and/or clusters of notes (but rarely chords) a huge range of dynamics, substantial pauses, the sustaining pedal is often flat-down, the tempi are usually measured and some works are immensely long (such as the four-and-a-half-hour For Philip Guston). The four pieces in this recital date from 1952 and ’86 and if anything with age Feldman’s writing became even more frugal (try the 70 minute For Bunita Marcus to get an even better idea of what Feldman could do with time and economy of expression) but the composer always holds the listener transfixed by the mesmeric web of sound he creates.

In contrast George Crumb seems to have a split-personality in that Processional is a fairly conventional piece dating from 1983 that effortlessly combines French-impressionism and Bartok, whereas the Little Suite for Christmas (1980) uses a much sparer language that is closer to Feldman’s including the use of node effects where the pianist plays with one hand and finds the point on the string where the wave pattern becomes static when pressed, which produces some gorgeous bell-like sounds, the second movement is a rapt Berceuse and there is an Eastern flavour to the Adoration of the Magi. This is wonderfully atmospheric music.

Finally there is Steven Osborne who gives hugely authoritative performances of each work—indeed this by some distance his finest recording to-date—which one can only hope will win the composers new friends as well as a raft of award nominations.

Thankfully Hyperion chose Wyaston Hall as opposed to one of their ecclesiastical venues for this recording, which means there is no excessive or artificially manipulated reverberation to muddy the textures that both composers create so brilliantly. The overall balance is fairly close, which is fine as it allows one to appreciate George Crumbs special effects and the welter of extreme pianissimo markings (think fffff) in the Feldman pieces. Internal balance is—as always with Hyperion—well-nigh perfect,, which means any emphasis is the work of the pianist not the engineer. Clarity is also exceptional and instrumental timbres are portrayed in a way that no 16bit compression of a high-res master can hope to equal, which means the node effects mentioned above have marvellous resonance and presence—they really are ravishingly beautiful—and the multiplicity of colours the composers created (Feldman was a big fan of and influenced by abstract-impressionist painters, such as Rothko and Pollock) are faithfully reproduced. The dynamic range is also excellent if not up to the standard of DXD files.

Interestingly most piano recitals are recorded over two to three days whereas this one only took one, which was either accidental or intentional, either way it is quite an achievement given the quality of this release.