Morton Feldman's place in history seems to be solidifying in the somewhat misrepresentative "maker of way long musics" moniker. And while it's plenty true that his works stretching past two hours, sometimes reaching six, are some of his most striking, the composer was equally capable of a Webernesque elegance. The beautiful collection Clarinet & String Quartet pairs Feldman's 1983 Clarinet and String Quartet demonstrates as much with two renditions of his 1961 Two Pieces for Clarinet and String Quartet. And while the former piece is hauntingly beautiful, it's the 1961 work in this recording that ought serve to fine tune the composer's reputation as being more than just about expansiveness.
The Two Pieces clocks in at a total of about four minutes (there's a difference of less than 10 seconds between the two readings), and is as stark and gentle as it is concise. At the same time, it's a rather active piece, moving easily between sustained tones and soft pizzicatos while creating an air of mystery. There's something somehow imperceptible about the piece, something that defies the listener from gathering and holding it; it's a bit like making a snowball out of water. As such, it's also hard to finger the difference between the two recordings. The second one, perhaps, is more vibrant, but what's more interesting than trying to divide them is considering their placement here. Opening and closing the disc, the two little pieces bookend the larger Clarinet and String Quartet, in a sense making a new, larger piece of the whole. On their own, the little pieces are quite artful. Their serviceable work as intro and outro here, however, also creates a nicely rounded listen.
The 1983 piece, by contrast is of a surprisingly moderate length for Feldman, a digestible 41 minutes with such a coherent logic that it propels itself forward with gentle ease. Beautifully played by Ib Hausmann and the Pellegrini Quartet, it was recorded at the same 1994 sessions as the Two Pieces takes. There's a wonderfully unusual, loping quality to the single-movement piece. It's strongly metered, nearly a waltz at times, but the time remains fluid, something like two people walking down the street together. The clarinet might walk slightly ahead, excited by its part in the conversation and pulling the strings along. Later they might fall more easily together and later still the strings pep up, the clarinet now perhaps growing tired but still tagging along. As all of this goes on, however, they are for all practical purposes walking together, walking at the same pace. They may not always clock in on a metronome, but neither is outrunning the either.
Feldman has spoken about the focuses of form versus scale in his composition, saying that, when a piece passes the 90-minute mark the concentration becomes on balancing the scale of the work. (It's interesting to note that, like the Clarinet and String Quartet, his works of more than 90 minutes were generally still a single movement.) Here, in perhaps more palatable portions, is an opportunity to hear Feldman the formalist.
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