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Morton Feldman: composer portrait Isabelle Faust (violin), Norbert Blume (viola), BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Martyn Brabbins (conductor), Barbican Hall, 1 February 2002 (PQ)

Rothko Chapel has long occupied a central place in the reception of Morton Feldman’s music. It exhibits the fragmentary textures, low dynamic levels and heightened sense of the numinous which define his music to many listeners. Feldman himself was less sure of its merits: ‘not a particularly important piece, but easy to listen to’. I found no reason to agree with the first part of his criticism (and found nothing to criticise in the second), but, placed in the context of what the composer himself were more ‘important’ works, I began to see his point about Rothko Chapel. It famously echoes Rothko’s washes of paint on vast spaces with a base aural canvas of quiet: the notes interrupt the silence, not the other way around. A solo viola makes melancholy interjections, occasionally replied to by timpani rolls. A female semi-chorus moves in and out of inaudibility, just as the chapel itself moves in and out of view as you gaze at Rothko’s paintings. Two of the chorus members have solos. Blink and you’ll miss them. Certainly it’s atmospheric, nowhere more so than at the work’s conclusion where, in a rare moment of sentiment in Feldman’s music, the solo viola plays a tune (a tune? A tune!), ‘the memory of a piece,’ said Feldman, ‘that I wrote when I was 14.’ Norbert Blume gave the moment all the eloquence it needed: just as importantly, the audience gave it the required degree of concentrated attention which is essential for Feldman’s music.

Only in the direct context of Violin and Orchestra was it suddenly obvious that something was missing from the episodic form of Rothko Chapel. Even for Feldman fans this may have come as a surprise, since Violin and Orchestra is so little heard, though its hour-long duration probably gives a good clue why. This is Isabelle Faust’s second performance of it: she said she was aware of no others since its premiere in 1979, though given that this was not billed as a UK premiere, someone is wrong somewhere. I only hope others will ask her to do it, because there are precious few other violinists around with the patience to learn and play it, and play it so beautifully. It helps to have one of the most tonally sensuous Strads around (the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ of 1704, from the glorious start of Strad’s golden period), but Faust’s bow control was unimpeachable in the part’s keenings and whisperings. She played from a full score and she had to, in order to catch cues from ppp rustlings within the orchestra.

The score’s most remarkable feature is its richness; not a continual richness of orchestration like Coptic Light, but a staggering inventiveness in the use of instrumental resources. A twilit sound world lulls the listener into a state of hypnotic concentration, only to find that what appears at first to be repetition is minutely altered variation, for bar after bar. Phrases and fragments of phrases rise and fall through the bare texture, disappearing only to reappear, once more subtly changed, 20 minutes later. This is the repertoire at which the BBCSO is unmatched in this country, and it was a privilege to hear such a complex piece given such a confident performance.

The success of the evening was of course due in large part to Martyn Brabbins, who conducted the BBCSO in the last BBC concert devoted to Feldman’s music, a few years ago at Maida Vale studio 1. Then as now he concluded with Feldman’s last orchestral score, Coptic Light (1986), but circumstances were different this time, and much for the better. Not only did the Barbican’s improved acoustic create a small but significant resonant haze for Feldman’s aural equivalent of a Persian carpet, but the players were prepared to take it seriously: which, judging from the constant and irritating sniggers from orchestral members in Maida Vale, they did not do last time. Coptic Light takes a completely different approach to orchestral texture from the two previous works, by using all of the (huge) orchestra, almost all the time: like Schumann gone mad, only not for grandiose striving, but the opposite, a continual weaving of parts into a smoothly rippling whole. The dynamic is still quiet: at least, as quietly as a hundred musicians can play for half an hour at a time. The effect is riveting and quite different from that of either earlier work: canny programming on the part of the BBC. The relatively decent attendance cannot have offset the cost of mounting the concert by much, but perhaps it will provide incentive sufficient to sponsor further exploration of this musical free-thinker.

Peter Quantrill

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