MORTON FELDMAN – String Quartet and Orchestra

I am forever searching for string quartet and orchestra compositions and arrangements but generally find them very disappointing. In fact, some of them are downright terrible. The worst have probably been the Beethoven Late Quartets and Janacek’s Kreutzer Sonata. Only American composer Morton Feldman [1926-1987] has got it right, in my estimation. He seems to get the balance just perfect, the string quartet does not get drowned out. Importantly, he is not writing a string orchestra arrangement for a string quartet, but a work for string quartet and orchestra. This is a conversational piece, a dialogue between the quartet and orchestra. It runs for nearly 26 minutes.

The quartet opens the piece, going it alone with a probing melody. Then the orchestra comes in gently, with a little muffled percussion which is a nice touch. The quartet comes back into prominence with the strings complementing the mood. Occasionally the orchestra plays solo but the quartet is never very far off. For somebody who adores  abstract, hanging chords, this is heaven. There is plenty of Feldman space. A piano plays a chord and the quartet returns, followed by a moderately loud, sharp, chord cluster from the orchestra. The opening melody returns with the quartet again prominent. The orchestra just plays so softly! Sometimes it is difficult to differentiate the two entities, it is so well balanced. The orchestra keeps feeding the quartet those long hanging chords, and the rumble of low pitched sounds. The quartet plays a recapitulation of the first theme and then motifs reminiscent of Feldman’s SQ II (Reviewed May 2016) appear. A lone piano chord leads to three seconds of silence; the orchestra comes back with a response and the piano again plays just one chord. We are now at the halfway mark.

An extended orchestral section ensues. Occasionally the piano will play one chord. The quartet resumes, beginning with that theme again, then blending with the orchestra. The chord voicings are so subtle, sometimes you can’t tell what you are listening to. The orchestra takes over again, with a rumbling section that lasts over a minute, which is a long time for Feldman. Now we have true dialogue, with quartet and orchestra alternating passages more frequently. The quartet breaks into a new melodic section while the orchestra accompanies in a very measured way. A low rumbling sound introduces a new section with the quartet prevailing. There is some pizzicato from the quartet going on here. The orchestra returns with those hanging chords and you can still hear the pizzicato. With one minute to go, the quartet expresses its final recapitulation and it’s all over.

I have just listened to the piece twice as I have been writing. I’m sure that if I listened again, I would have different words to say. This is an absolutely wonderful piece, probably my favourite Feldman composition. The beauty is in the writing and the inability, sometimes, to be able to differentiate between quartet and orchestral sections. The orchestra rarely rises above the level of the quartet. And then of course, there is some profound abstraction here.

Congratulations to the sound engineers, who performed the recording, mixing and mastering. Nobody has ever done a better job in balancing such a delicate work.

The review CD is titled Atlantis by the Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Frankfurt on the Hat Hut label. There are two other fine pieces on the CD. They are Oboe and Orchestra (16:38) and Atlantis (11:41). As far as I am aware there are no other CDs containing the piece. There is however, a live recording, which I have heard on the internet.

The CD is on Spotify and you can listen to this piece on YouTube and earsense.

Listenability: An incredible view into Feldman’s world.

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