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Philip Thomas: Morton Feldman Piano

John Eyles By

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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.

Track Listing: Last Pieces; Piano; Palais de Mari; Untitled Piano Piece; Illusions; Three Dances; Nature Pieces; Variations; Two Intermissions; Intermissions 3; Intermissions 4; Intersection 2; Three Pieces for Piano; Piano Piece 1955; Piano Piece 1956 A; Piano Piece 1956 B; Intermission 6 first version; Intermission 5; Intermission 6 second version; Extensions 3; Music for the film “Sculpture by Lipton”; Piano Piece 1952; Intersection 3; Piano Piece (1964); Vertical Thoughts 4; Figure of Memory; Piano Piece (to Philip Guston); Intermission 6 third version; Triadic Memories; For Bunita Marcus.

Personnel: Philip Thomas: piano.

Title: Morton Feldman Piano | Year Released: 2019 | Record Label: Another Timbre

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