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On All Fours

Morton Feldman’s music, the perceptive Alex Ross once wrote, works best in isolation. A week in mid-April had begun with splendid public chamber music: the exuberant Cuarteto Latinoamericano in a “Historic Sites” setting, playing music to match in an animated Mexican restaurant in East L.A. It had ended with the vast but intensely private expanse of Feldman’s String Quartet No. 2, in a setting far less appropriate, surrounded by spectators and gallerygoers free to come and go, strolling on hardwood floors nearly as resonant as those at Disney Hall, and with conversations audible near and far including those of children. I knew that the last two hours of the six-hour performance, with the County Museum officially closed and the audience reduced to believers, would turn into the proper setting. Long before those hours, however, I was put sufficiently out of sorts by the affront to Morty Feldman and his dedicated performers — just another LACMA boo-boo — to flee to the refuge of my own DVD player and my own Feldman discs.

Two of “the New York School”’s signature works deal with time scale: John Cage’s four-minute, 33-second “silence,” which is created anew by the surroundings of each performance, and this huge projection of Feldman’s, which (insofar as human endurance can maintain) draws apart from the surrounding world. Off by itself, it communes with its four dedicated participants to propose, discuss, ponder and then move on to some new idea in this endless progression of the most elemental kinds of music. Sometimes a fragment of melody will immediately unwind into something else very similar; sometimes the next idea will turn into a stern rejection of what has gone before. Sometimes all four instruments will suggest a melodic fragment in four-part, grinding harmony, and you sit up straight as if something from above has hit you hard. In every case, you have the sense of a connected, ongoing process in this work, which moves in definite melodic shapes that are often quite long. This differs from other long Feldman works I know — the four-hour For Philip Guston, for example, which I swam around in for nearly a month while writing the notes for the Bridge recording without ever really discerning a melodic process (not that it mattered).

For the playing of the Flux Quartet (whose name stands in tribute to “Fluxus,” the battlefield of musical renegades in the youth-stirring days of the younger Feldman, the topless Charlotte Moorman, Nam June — shed a tear! — and Yoko), I have nothing but praise mingled with awe. Their insights uncovered the depths of the musician that was Morty Feldman — we also used to talk about Schubert, after all — and I wish I could have shared their stamina.

Mexico’s Cuarteto — three Jewish brothers named Bitrán plus cellist Javier Montiel — celebrated their own mix, starting off with Osvaldo Golijov’s ubiquitous Yiddishbbuk and moving on to indigenous Latin material of slighter but delightful substance. I found Gabriela Lena Frank’s Leyendas particularly congenial: charming dance pieces infused with Andean folk rhythms and imitations of local instrumental colors. There is more than one kind of chamber music in this world, and more than one way to hear it.

Sir Donald Tovey, whose writings decades ago started me on the gloomy career pathway I still tread, wrote with purple eloquence about the C-minor Piano Quartet of Brahms. The work isn’t that often performed nowadays—for reasons not necessarily the fault of Sir Donald or myself — so it seemed proper to look in on last week’s performance by the Philharmonic’s Chamber Music Society, which had the visiting pianist Garrick Ohlsson joined with members of the orchestra’s string section in that very work.

If I should have learned anything since those years of reveling in Toveyesque eloquence, it should be that Brahms in C minor — a piano sonata, a string quartet, a symphony and this piano quartet — spells emotional ruination at the bottom of a mountain of pure ice. What dismal gesticulation! What an infinitude of arm-waving in the desperate search of a melodic shape! In my tattered Tovey I read of “purging through pity and terror,” of an Aristotelian nobility and permanence, of a denial of “cold academicism.” Perhaps I’m holding the book upside down. Mr. Ohlsson, who himself is the size of a couple of Disney Hall’s grand pianos, gave the work the full measure of his convictions; cellist Jonathan Karoly played the gurgling cello solo in the slow movement very nicely, but I found the work empty and cold beyond endurance. My strongest sensation, in fact, was embarrassment at remembering that I had once spent quite a lot of money for the only available recording, with a pianist named Olive Bloom, on some English private label. Last time I looked there were 12.

The Thirteenth of Shostakovich’s String Quartets, also on the program, is yet another of those racked late works that tell us, even more than the symphonies, of some kind of unnamed torment — political? physical? conscience? — that drove the composer’s self-ruinous late years. Here he assigns his outcry to the solo viola, and John Hayhurst’s agonized final terror lingered long in the memory. Along with the cycle of symphonies, the five-year cycle of the Shostakovich String Quartets, which has involved many of the orchestra’s players, has been an enlightening experience as an adjunct to the concerts. I should imagine it has well served the musicians, too.

Garrick Ohlsson was back a couple of days later, looming large over Mendelssohn’s fragile G-minor Piano Concerto, which, truth to tell, might better have profited from somewhat more tinkle than roar. But the roar was also supplied in impressive measure by the Philharmonic and its guest conductor, who used to be more often in our midst, the American-born, Swedish-raised Herbert Blomstedt, who delivered the Fourth Symphony of Anton Bruckner in a beautifully shaped, clear-visioned performance full of the good sense and excellent balance that earned him his staunch following in his San Francisco days. Aside from a passing bad moment among the horns — including a muffed opening note that surely must go into St. Peter’s book — the orchestra rose well to his urging. The sound of Bruckner’s scoring in Disney Hall is one more reason why they didn’t really need that other organ.?


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