A new 5-CD set of recordings featuring Morton Feldman’s solo piano music, the most complete set available. Including some rare early and unpublished pieces, the set traces Feldman’s early development through to his extended late pieces.
A 52-page booklet discusses the music as well as Feldman’s relationship with the piano, and a more personal reflection on Philip’s relationship with Feldman’s music.
The set has picked up some great reviews, including being selected as one of Alex Ross’s notable recordings of 2019, and Classical CD of the week in The Guardian, as well as being featured a number of times on BBC Radio 3, described by Tom Service as ‘one of the major releases of the twenty-first century gramophone’.
Disc One: 1-4 Last Pieces (1959) 5 Piano (1977) 6 Palais de Mari (1986)
Disc Two: 1 Untitled piano piece (194?) ** 2-5 Illusions (1949) 6-8 Three Dances (1950) 9-13 Nature Pieces (1951) 14 Variations (1951) 15-16 Two Intermissions (1950) 17 Intermission 3 (1951) 18 Intermission 4 (1952) 19 Intersection 2 (1951) 20-22 Three Pieces for Piano (1954) 23 Piano Piece 1955 24 Piano Piece 1956A 25 Piano Piece 1956B 26 Intermission 6 #1 (1953) 27 Intermission 5 (1952)
Disc Three: 1 Intermission 6 #2 (1953) 2 Extensions 3 (1952) 3-4 Music for the film ‘Sculpture by Lipton’ (1954) ** 5 Piano Piece 1952 6 Intersection 3 (1953) 7 Piano Piece (1964) 8 Vertical Thoughts 4 (1963) 9 Figure of Memory (1954) ** 10 Piano Piece (1963) 11 Intermission 6 #3 (1953) 12 Triadic Memories start (1981)
Disc Four: 1 Triadic Memories concluded (1981)
Disc Five: 1 For Bunita Marcus (1986)
**= first published recording
The Guardian, Classical CD of the week: ‘Morton Feldman wrote for the piano for most of his composing career, and the 46 pieces included in Philip Thomas’s collection – the most extensive survey of this music to date, including several works recorded for the first time – provide a thread through its changing emphases and stylistic shifts. The earliest here is an untitled piece from 1942, just one minute long and composed when Feldman was 16; the latest is Palais de Mari from 1986, the year before his death.ollection – the most extensive survey of this music to date, including several works recorded for the first time – provide a thread through its changing emphases and stylistic shifts. The earliest here is an untitled piece from 1942, just one minute long and composed when Feldman was 16; the latest is Palais de Mari from 1986, the year before his death.
Thomas has been studying and playing Feldman for a quarter of a century, and his lengthy essay accompanying these discs, in which, as well as the pieces themselves, he discusses different approaches to interpreting this fascinatingly varied music, is an essential addition to the performances. As he points out, recordings of both of the biggest works here, the 90-minute Triadic Memories from 1981, and the hour-long For Bunita Marcus, written four years later, already run into double figures, and he admits to having had doubts about adding to those numbers. But including them as part of a much more comprehensive set made sense, for it enabled him, as he writes, “to find out how one piece rubs against another, where the contrasts and points of contact are.” The pieces that Thomas has omitted, and his reasons for doing so, are clearly explained, too.
What we have here, then, is an authoritative presentation of some of the most important keyboard music of the second half of the 20th century. If the works here from the late 1940s and early 50s reveal the importance of Morton Feldman wrote for the piano for most of his composing career, and the 46 pieces included in Philip Thomas’s collection – the most extensive survey of this music to date, including several works recorded for the first time – provide a thread through its changing emphases and stylistic shifts. The earliest here is an untitled piece from 1942, just one minute long and composed when Feldman was 16; the latest is Palais de Mari from 1986, the year before his death. meticulously calculated harmonies, whether the scores are indeterminate, or notated conventionally or graphically. Between 1964 and 1977, Feldman wrote nothing for solo piano, but the piece with which he broke that silence, baldly titled Piano, is one of the most remarkable in the whole set. Though it is far less well-known than the larger scale works that followed it, Piano seems to exploit every facet of the instrument – its range of tone and touch, harmonics and resonance – more comprehensively than anything else Feldman wrote. It provides a perfect demonstration of Thomas’s mastery and understanding of this music too, alive to every inflection and subtle change of colour, and to every challenge it presents.’
Andrew Clements, The Guardian
‘Anyone who admires the introspective soundscapes of American composer Morton Feldman needs this New set of his piano music. It’s curated with enormous care and insight by Philip Thomas, whose notes are as illuminating as anything I’ve read on the challenges of performing, recording and listening to Feldman…
‘An outstanding set, lovingly curated with excellent programme notes on Feldman’s music.’
Andrew McGregor, ‘Record Review’, BBC Radio 3
‘It’s 20 years since John Tilbury released his highly regarded set of Morton Feldman’s complete piano music on the LondonHALL label. Since then the composer’s reputation has undergone a transformation. Where once new Feldman recordings were rare and exciting, these days keeping up with the release schedule takes real effort….
This new compendium of Feldman played by the Sheffield based pianist Philip Thomas is released partly in acknowledgement of Tilbury’s pioneering efforts two decades ago. But so much has changed, with so many recordings of the piano music already available, that Thomas has had to think carefully about his motivation in adding to the stockpile…. as you’d expect from Another Timbre, the textures and colours in this new set are vividly captured and expertly balanced.
But Thomas’s approach – working closely with his producer Simon Reynell – moves far beyond wanting to approximate a concert hall perspective of live Feldman on disc. In a 50 page essay about his relationship to Feldman’s music, Thomas emphasises that while other composers make you think about the sound of a G sharp, Feldman focuses the concentration on how notes feel. The unique challenges of his piano writing, Thomas implies, returns his interpreters to basic questions: about how the wrist moves as the hand attacks a note – if indeed attack is the right word in the context of Feldman; about the coordination of fingertip working in combination with fingerpad. Articulation that works well for Beethoven or Stockhausen would likely torpedo the delicate equilibrium of a Feldman score. Thomas writes that his set was recorded so that “the listener is somehow snuggled inside the body of the instrument, ears almost touching the strings, feeling the vibrations as the hammer strikes”.
…Throughout the set you’re aware of how thoroughly Thomas grasps the architecture of the music, and how deeply this sensitivity is grounded inside an intimate communion with the resonant swells and overtones of Feldman. Again and again I was reminded of Bach playing of the highest order as Thomas’s crystalline clear orientation around line makes the motility between contrapuntal lines dance internally. My favourite moment in the whole set occurs midway during For Bunita Marcus as Thomas nonochalantly slips the rhythm into double-time, while maintaining absolute control over dynamics, notes not so much played as massaged to life.’
Philip Clark, The Wire
Igor Levit anticipated the Beethoven birthday bash on the near horizon with a scintillating cycle of the composer’s complete sonatas, Florence Price was honored with a crucial recording from the state of her birth, and both Robert Palmer and James Tenney found expressive champions. But this imposing five-CD collection of piano works by Morton Feldman mandates special notice: not only because it includes pieces never recorded previously, but also because the patient poetry of Philip Thomas’s playing is enhanced by an exemplary recording. The ethereal magic in this music has never been captured more ideally.
Steve Smith – ‘Best of 2019 Recordings’ National Sawdust Log
Everything about this six-hour, five-disc box-set of Morton Feldman piano music radiates the care, attention-to-detail and, yes, love that have been invested in producing it. The artwork, packaging, documentation and information are all second to none, as is the crystal-clear recording quality. Any cynic questioning the need for another exquisitely-produced box-set should note that, among its one-hundred-and-fifty-plus releases to date, this is only the second box-set issued by Another Timbre, the first being the much-praised six-disc Wandelweiser und so weiter; rather than releasing its ten-disc Canadian Composers Series as a box-set, the label issued them individually, giving the accompanying booklet away free. In a nutshell, Another Timbre only issues box-sets when absolutely essential… and this one is undoubtedly essential.
The album title Morton Feldman Piano is guarded in its claims; the album does not contain all of Feldman’s music for piano, nor is the selection necessarily the “best” of Feldman despite the presence of such popular—and much recorded— compositions as “Triadic Memories” and “For Bunita Marcus.” The forty-four compositions here date from a 1942 “student piece,” through all of Feldman’s key periods, ending with his final composition for solo piano, “Palais de Mari” (1986). The only comparable multi-disc set of Feldman’s piano works is the long-unavailable, limited-edition four-disc set Morton Feldman All Piano (LondonHALL, 1999) featuring John Tilbury at the piano. Although that set did not include all of Feldman’s music for piano either, comparison of the two reveals a large measure of agreement about what to include. Morton Feldman Piano includes the very first published recordings of three pieces: the Satie-esque “Untitled piano piece” from 1942; “Music for the film ‘Sculpture by Lipton’ ,” from 1954, transcribed by pianist Philip Thomas himself as Feldman’s manuscript of it was lost (see YouTube below); “Figure of Memory (For Merle Marsicano)” from 1954, which was performed regularly through to the 70’s as the music for dance performances by Merle Marsicano.
The mention of John Tilbury—”considered one of the foremost interpreters of Morton Feldman’s music,” according to Wikipedia—makes this a good point at which to introduce Morton Feldman -Two Pianos and other pieces 1953-1969(Another Timbre, 2014) a double album on which Tilbury and Thomas played several Feldman pieces at two pianos and collaborated with other musicians on more pieces, including two three-piano pieces with Catherine Laws, and one four-piano piece with Laws and Mark Knoop. At the time, Thomas had a burgeoning reputation as an interpreter of John Cage, Feldman and Christian Wolff among others. That reputation was enhanced by his being placed next to Tilbury for the two-piano pieces. (A comparable historical analogy would be the 1957 recording session for the album Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane [Jazzland, 1961], in particular the two tracks on which Coltrane and Coleman Hawkins played together as equals, doing wonders for the esteem of the rising star Coltrane.) It makes no sense to describe either Tilbury or Thomas as the better Feldman interpreter; suffice to say that are both exceptional.
As well as Thomas’ skills as a pianist, the box-set displays his talents as a Feldman scholar; over thirty-seven eloquent pages of the set’s booklet, he discusses topics as diverse as his thoughts on performance, pianos and touch, the decay of a piano’s sound, variations in Feldman’s notation and all of the music in the box set. Altogether, it makes enlightening reading, particularly when combined with listening to the music itself. Thomas writes that this set of recordings tried to record such that the resultant audio is as if the listener is somehow snuggled inside the body of the instrument, ears almost touching the strings, feeling the vibrations as the hammer strikes. It is a great tribute to Thomas’ playing and Simon Reynell’s recording that the music here fully succeeds in delivering on those aims.
Forget about albums-of-the-week, end of year lists and so forth; Morton Feldman Piano seems destined to be played, discussed and cherished for many decades to come. A historic five-star release.
John Eyles, All About Jazz
‘Morton Feldman Piano’ is a major 5CD collection of virtually all of Feldman’s music for piano, performed by Philip Thomas with a tactility befitting of this extraordinary, quiet, intimate music. It’s the most extensive survey of Feldman’s piano music since John Tilbury’s long unavailable 4-CD set was released 20 years ago, including several pieces which weren’t included there, and three works which have never been released on disc before at all.
Feldman was part of a radical group of experimenters, alongside the likes of John Cage, Christian Wolff and Earle Brown, who looked beyond the strictures of serialism to innovative with and embrace aspects of chance and “indeterminacy” in their compositions. Most often associated with the piano, Feldman is perhaps best known for his perceptively time-slowing later works, but this boxset presents the widest angle possible on his approach to the piano, spanning surprisingly cranky recordings from the 1940s thru to the exquisite delicacy of his acclaimed ‘Triadic Memories’ and ultimately ‘Palais de Mari’ in 1986. Feldman died in 1987, leaving behind a remarkable catalogue that has previously been tackled by John Tilbury in the 4CD set ‘All Piano’ (1999), which is now long out of print and trades for triple figures on the 2nd hand market, making this boxset of Philip Thomas’ Feldman interpretations an even more indispensable collection.
Accompanied by pianist Philip Thomas’ lucubrate and extensive book of notes on Feldman’s music, its development, unique notation, and his close personal relationship with it, ‘Morton Feldman Piano’ methodically and artfully unpackages the great composer’s often forbiddingly vast oeuvre for anyone looking for a way in or seeking to enrich their knowledge of his life and work. In great depth, Thomas writes about Feldman’s holistic approach, recognising the connection between ears, mind, and fingertips which resulted in the music’s quietly extreme dynamic, and which singularly revolutionised historic approaches to the instrument thru the artist’s attempt at refusing attack in the notes – essentially a near-impossible idea when considering that the piano is a percussive instrument, and needs to be hit to be played. The sensitivity of the results are quite astonishing, and most beautifully executed and evidenced in Thomas’ playing throughout all 31 pieces included.
While the later works will be well known to even the casual Feldman follower, and are sure to entrance newcomers, his early and mid-period works between the late ‘40s and into the ‘60s provide a fascinating grounding for his sound and style, ranging from a solemnly inquisitive ‘Untitled piano piece’ (1942) to the almost jazzy flourishes of ‘Illusions’ (1949), thru to his increasingly sparser ‘Music for the film ‘Sculpture by Lipton’’ (1954), and up to the barely there ‘Piano Piece’ (1964) before he took a 13 year hiatus from writing for solo piano (although he would still write parts for piano in larger ensembles), only returning to it with ‘Piano’ (1977).
Yet for all the technicality and philosophy surrounding Feldman’s compositional process, it remains to be said that his music is strikingly easy on the ear. With a little focus and patience in the right mindset, Feldman’s music has the capacity to lead the thinking mind into unusual places, and as his catalogue proceeds, it becomes an increasing pleasure to find the notes flickering, illuminating contrasts with the shadows of his lacunae. ‘
2019 marks the 20th anniversary of John Tilbury’s signal All Piano, a four-CD set approaching almost all of Morton Feldman’s piano music. Here the younger Philip Thomas presents a five-CD, six-hour set of even more of these works. There’s a direct lineage: in 2014, the two pianists recorded Two Pianos and other pieces, 1953-1969 (also on Another Timbre), covering Feldman’s works for multiple pianos and some for pianos with other instruments.
Thomas explores the breadth of Feldman’s solo piano music, omitting only a few student pieces from the 1940s, while resurrecting others, like an archival minute-long Untitled piano piece, dated 1947, for a glimpse of Feldman’s nascent vision. There are also transcriptions of two pieces with lost scores, including the piano part in the soundtrack for the film Sculpture by Lipton.
Thomas brings a reflective depth to the work, emphasizing the composer’s preoccupation with sonic detail. Although Feldman didn’t alter the piano’s physical character like his colleague John Cage, he explored its sonic character and notation with a unique depth, including silent fingerings to create harmonic resonance, varied approaches to grace notes and allowing sounded notes to decay in full, the sounds isolated and appreciated individually.
While sometimes developing a kind of dislocation – even writing two-hand parts as if they were synchronous, then instructing that they be played separately – Feldman put a new emphasis on attack, duration and decay. There’s great detail in Thomas’ 52-page liner essay, including his description of a year-long recording process with producer Simon Reynell that emphasizes the music’s sound from the performer’s perspective and suggests the albeit quiet music be played loud enough for all its detail to emerge.
Landmarks and masterworks will draw attention first. Disc one creates an immediate overview, gathering significant pieces that run throughout Feldman’s career and last between 22 and 27 minutes, from 1959’s diverse Last Pieces to 1977’s Piano with its greater formal concerns and his final Palais de Mari (1986), with its geometric construction and enduring resolution. Still more commanding are the late and large-scale Triadic Memories and For Bunita Marcus, vast explorations of form and scale that can suggest compound bells.
Feldman’s relative miniatures, however, are just as significant: the collaborative nature of his music, including unspecified durations and sequences, clearly inspires Thomas. It’s most notable in Intermission 6 (1953), with the performer determining order and repeats. Thomas provides three versions of the piece, one in the published score, two of his own design, one of those with repetitioons, the three running from less that five to over 11 minutes.
Feldman produced one of the most resonant and intimate bodies of 20th-century piano music, conditioning and opening time in the process. Philip Thomas is an ideal collaborator.
Stuart Broomer, The Whole Note
This monumental endeavor by British pianist Philip Thomas (well known as a member of the contemporary ensemble Apartment House) summarizes his decades of direct engagement and study with the music of Morton Feldman. In 1999, pianist John Tilbury released a masterful 4-CD collection of the composer’s piano music, which has led some to wonder why Thomas would feel the need to chime in, but such thinking is silly. The subtlety and openness of Feldman’s music certainly allows for every performer to leave his or her mark, and Thomas also adds more, rarely heard, material—including a previously unpublished minute-long gem from 1942 and a couple of others from 1954—to the mix.
Aside from the sublime, meticulous performances themselves, the pianist’s elaborate liner notes provide fascinating insights into his own approach. Thomas places a unique emphasis on experiencing sounds from the performer’s onstage perspective, noting that audiences often miss some of the nuances in Feldman’s generally-quiet music by dint of physical distance. He also waxes eloquently on the importance of touch in Feldman’s music, a quality elusive in the actual scores. Iconic works like “Triadic Memories” and “For Bunita Marcus” occupy a great chunk of the contents, but a lesser-celebrated work like 1977’s “Piano” prove equally more revealing. Essential stuff.
In the classical context, each interpretation must deal with a previous one, measure itself – maybe not directly but subsequently, through the wise listener’s judgement – with the previous knowledge of a certain piece and its author. It’s certainly a much more common practice than it is to undertake the recording of an (almost) integral cycle, equalling the re-creation of a wide and often manifold artistic path, and therefore of an entire expressive world.
Before the devout Philip Thomas, only John Tilbury had profused himself in recording Morton Feldman’s solo piano works (All Piano, 4CD, LondonHALL, 1999), an authentic milestone that certified definitively a full poetic concordance between the American master and his British spiritual disciple – a bond so symbiotic to the point of modifying the distinctive sound of the AMM group, in which Tilbury has been playing since the eighties.
The latter (*1936) and the aforementioned Thomas (*1972) had already joined under the aegis of the English label Another Timbre, run by Simon Reynell, for the retrospective Two Pianos and Other Pieces, 1953-1969 (2CD, 2014), on closer inspection not only a collection of great value, but also the actual handover following which Thomas, in turn, decided to lay another solid foundation in the history of Feldmanian interpretations.
The pianist’s artistic path is inextricably intertwined with the events of the new radical composition and therefore of Another Timbre itself, a second home for the international collective Wandelweiser and for its even more numerous interpreters, including the Apartment House ensemble which Thomas has historically been a part of. A “silent” avant-garde cultivated, more than anywhere else, in the London temple of Cafe Oto, which along with free improvisation has linked its name to the growing ramifications of post-Cagean aesthetics.
But authors such as Antoine Beuger, Jürg Frey, Magnus Granberg and Michael Pisaro – among others – have never concealed the inexhaustible influence of the heritage left by Feldman, who went on to become a decidedly more isolated element with respect to his coevals of the New York School, hermetically locked as he was in his musical “being-time”.
This was a necessary preamble to the gestation and the immersive listening of the 5-CD set released in 2019, twenty years after Tilbury’s and practically sealing a crucial decade for the history and high reputation of Reynell’s label, now to be considered as the most important of its kind. Let us start, then, from the undoubted reasons of merit of this boxset.
First of all – although it’s not news when speaking of Another Timbre – there’s the crystal-clear quality of the recording: it may seem like an obvious underlining, but unfortunately its illustrious precedent could not boast the same, even though the interpretive symbiosis of Tilbury equally transpired. Recorded by Reynell himself at St. Paul’s Hall, University of Huddersfield, Philip Thomas’ performances really got all the depth they deserve, thus offering us a listening that does not call for attention but captures it spontaneously. So writes Thomas in the liner notes:
The approach taken with this set of recordings has been to try to capture the experience of the pianist as closely as possible, or, better still, to record such that the resultant audio is as if the listener is somehow snuggled inside the body of the instrument, ears almost touching the strings, feeling the vibrations as the hammer strikes.
We thus arrive at the second worthy aspect: a 52-page booklet that not only reports the interpreter’s comments on his relationship with Feldman’s work, but also a particularly exhaustive excursus on the genesis of each piece, the different notations of the scores and the crucial aspect of sound decay, an integral part of Feldman’s pianism – in his words, a “departing landscape… leaving us rather than coming towards us”.
Thirdly, despite the fact that both major editions are not entirely complete, the 2019 boxset contains the premiere recordings of three rarities from the composer’s youth period: “Untitled Piano Piece” (1942), “Music for the Film ‘Sculpture by Lipton’” (1954) and “Figure of Memory (For Merle Marsicano)” (1954); small gems – especially the second one – which already reveal the seduction of a suspended time, “subtracted” from the complexity of the sensory experience surrounding it to become, purely and splendidly, an end in itself.
After that, there’s nothing left to do but abandoning yourself to a cycle of interpretations whose contribution Thomas humbly tends to minimize, and which instead is the best that could be asked from a listener eager to rediscover a fundamental repertoire of 20th-century piano music. A journey that starts in medias res, with four pieces from 1959 deceptively titled “Last Pieces“, with which for the first time Feldman leaves the performer a freedom of duration (since only the tempo, ‘slow’ or ‘fast’, and the density of each piece is specified).
With almost half an hour in duration, the obscure examination of “Piano” (1977) follows, traversed by profound resonances but also by sudden stops of the pedal, as winces of uncertainty in the already precarious rhythmic and tonal balance. Submissive and crepuscular, the last solo piano chronologically, “Palais de Mari” (1986), is another sublimating labyrinth of irregular geometries, whose inspiration comes from the architectural peculiarities of “the ruins of an ancient Mesopotamian palace in modern day Syria, a photo of which Feldman saw at the Louvre in Paris”.
In this way, the first CD establishes its own autonomy, configuring itself as an arbitrary and obviously only partial summary of the refinement process with which Feldman has crystallized his aesthetic (quoting T.S. Eliot, Only through time time is conquered).
The second and third discs are much more diversified, with a handful of miniatures ascribable to the post-serial period shared with (and, later on, never denied by) Christian Wolff and Earle Brown. In this group of works various strategies of indeterminacy and graphic notation are applied, through which Feldman “un-fixes” the sounds, frees them from the theoretical immutability of the pentagram, offering them a potential of virtually infinite combinations.
Between solemnity and reverie, the four “Illusions” (1949) and the five “Nature Pieces” (1950) attempt, in alternate phases, to reconcile Debussy’s evanescent touch and Schönberg’s brusque kleine stücke. Composed between 1950 and 1953, the six “Intermissions” (the last of which is presented in three versions) allow us to imagine what unlikely representation they could be the break of – perhaps the most enigmatic plays of Beckett, to which Feldman would in fact take part in 1977 with the chamber opera “Neither”.
With the final part of the third disc we reach the two monumental apogees of the end of his career, “Triadic Memories” (1981, for the excellent interpreter Aki Takahashi and the Australian Roger Woodward) and “For Bunita Marcus” (1986, dedicated to his student of the University at Buffalo), comparable in importance only to the second string quartet. Figures recalled at a distance, repeated with variable intervals, “consumed” while refusing to transform them into simple refrains rather than changing echoes of a continuous, luminous being present of sound, placid and anti-descriptive in its own intimate essence. The only superfluous thing, here, would be my further praise of these singular masterpieces of the late twentieth century, in which Philip Thomas identifies himself with impeccable sensibility and precision.
Perennially interrogative and unresolved, Morton Feldman’s music – like the brightest colour textures of Mark Rothko – is apparently capable of existing only in the moment of someone else’s contemplation, as if stolen from and returned to non-existence for a long, transfiguring moment.
In all evidence, the English pianist’s confrontation with said repertoire results into a brilliant demonstration of “vertical” virtuosity, meaning the utmost care in the attack of the notes rather than in their rapid and convoluted succession, of Romantic lineage. Another Timbre’s boxset won’t have to wait to become a reference publication, as it is already with absolute certainty.
Michele Palozzo – esoteros