More ‘Music for People’ at the Purcell Room

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  EndymionEXAUDI: James Weeks (conductor), Purcell Room, London, 21.09.2011 (CG)

Morton Feldman: Only (1947)
James Weeks: Inscription (world première) (1973)
Morton Feldman: Voices and Cello
Andrew Hamilton: Right and Wrong (world première)
Morton Feldman: Clarinet and String Quartet (1983)

The second of two concerts given the heading “Music for People” by the excellent Endymion Ensemble, and the terrific vocal group, EXAUDI, concentrated on works by the proudly American composer Morton Feldman (1926-1987) with two British works by younger British composers sandwiched between.

Feldman is considered to occupy an important place in American music, and is often associated with John Cage in pioneering an approach to music that has little to do with music of the past. He was one of the first to employ indeterminate techniques, in which rhythms and/or pitches are interpreted freely by the performers; consequently some of his scores employ graphics rather than conventional notation systems. He found inspiration among artists such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, and the abstract expressionist painters in general, while it was the music of Anton Webern which made a profound effect and set him on his revolutionary course. Feldman’s later music was fully notated, and some works are extremely long; we had samples of those tonight, though not his String Quartet no 2, which lasts for six hours!

To start the concert the delightful Juliet Fraser sang Only with a haunting tone and perfectly sure intonation. This is a very short setting of the Rilke poem, composed when Feldman was only 21, and is largely in the Dorian mode with some telling ‘foreign’ notes.  Without a break we were thrust into James Weeks’ Inscription, for two female and two male singers, and string quartet. It is a setting of a text by Fernando Pessoa, “all work is futile, and futile is all work.” Weeks employs high register clusters to good effect, and there is some fine writing for both singers and instrumentalists, but unfortunately it rather outstays its welcome for those not fully attuned to music which hardly develops over a long period, and it became somewhat tiring.

Feldman’s Voices and Cello, with two female voices and a lone cello, is one of the composer’s more static pieces, employing clusters and chromatic movement – delicate, soft and strange, it almost stops several times. It was beautifully performed, although in this, and some other pieces, one would have preferred a more spatial acoustic than the Purcell Room offers.

Andrew Hamilton’s Right and Wrong was something of a blessed relief after so much quietly static music. A setting of a text from The Untroubled Mind by Agnes Martin, this is exciting, dynamic music, which is complex in an effective way. One admired not only the composer’s considerable skill, but also the extraordinary virtuosity of the EXAUDI singers and Endymion players, for whom this piece is a brilliant showcase.

Following the interval we were back in Feldman territory with his late Clarinet and String Quartet. At over forty minutes, this is one of his substantial works, and it’s also an exercise in maintaining a consistent atmosphere over a long span. Devotees find enormous depths in this and other late works; dissonant clusters and highly repetitive short phrases (there is no melody as such) continue ad infinitum, and sympathetic souls lose themselves in the quietly hypnotic quality of it all. I’m afraid my reaction is slightly different. For me this was close to torture, and possibly the most tedious listening experience to which I have ever subjected myself. I counted the spotlights on the ceiling, the planks of wood on the platform, the number of seats per row, praying that it would end. I mused that it was the Einaudi of “serious” music (will someone please explain the success of Einaudi?) and longed for something dramatic or at least interesting to happen. Nevertheless, no blame should be ascribed to the wonderfully sensitive clarinetist (Mark van de Wiel) or the lovely quartet from Endymion; their devotion to the music was obvious, and maintaining the required level of concentration and precision cannot be easy.

Is Feldman’s music vitally important, or no more than a curious backwater? I know what I think, but there remain plenty who would sharply disagree, and at least Endymion and EXAUDI should be congratulated on bringing his work to our attention again, and, perhaps even more importantly, commissioning and performing the new works heard over these two concerts.

Christopher Gunning