FELDMAN: String Quartet

Ives Ensemble
hat [now]Art 167

Sound: ****

Often unfairly caricatured as John Cage’s overweight New York School sidekick, whose music is as phlegmatic as his personality, the scores created by American composer Morton Feldman (1926-1987) offer more range than imagined. The proof is apparent in this authoritative performance of his austerely titled String Quartet from 1979 by the Netherlands-based Ives Ensemble.

The nearly 77-minute composition’s generic name confirms Feldman’s links to what has been called “the highest medium for a composer’s thoughts” and such masters of the form as Beethoven. No one would confuse the string quartets composed by Beethoven, the ultimate Romantic, with the spiky, angular, work here. Yet although mostly played adagio and nearly vibrato-less, the drama implicit in the score is expressed with consecutive shifts from pianissimo to fortissimo, from arco to pizzicato, and the method in which chords are divided. The performance certainly doesn’t resemble so-called classic minimalism.

There are no drowsy, drained passages. Instead special bowing effects, perfectly timed silences and single chords stacked in unison among the players, peak interest as the sluicing notes shift and adapt. There’s even a climax of sorts, just past the half-way mark, where the strings’ irregular pulsing manifests itself in crunches, scrapes and squeezes. A choppy call-and-response pattern is evident as well. The composition’s repeated motifs aren’t fungible either, as Feldman’s score calls for faster or slower variations which repeat the chord multiple times in four different layers of rhythmic patterns or which alter the duration with repetitions over different bars.

Starkly stripped to its essence, String Quartet’s recurrent chord variations also recall the totality of the composer’s work, where it seems to take a long while to get nowhere. But like abstract art or the new novel, appreciation of Feldman lies in the intricacies of interpretation rather then a rousing finale.

— KEN WAXMAN

—For OPUS Volume 31 No. 2