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Morton Feldman: Two Pianos and other pieces, 1953-1969

John Eyles By

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It has become a truism that AMM pianist John Tilbury is an interpreter of Morton Feldman's music par excellence—one of the very best, if not the best. Such opinions are backed up by his Feldman recordings such as Morton Feldman: All Piano (LondonHALL, 1999), Triadic Memories—Notti Stellate A Vagli (Atopos, 2008) and For Philip Guston (Atopos, 2013). Developed over decades, his touch, timing and note placement make Tilbury's readings of Feldman fresh and alive—as close to definitive as one could hope for. So, for this new double CD of Feldman piano pieces, there could surely have been little debate that Tilbury's name had to be first on the team sheet.

Unlike the albums cited above, Two Pianos and other pieces, 1953-1969 does not feature Tilbury alone at the piano but in the company of from one to seven other musicians. On eleven of the twelve tracks he appears on, he is joined by at least one other pianist, with "Piece for Four Pianos" featuring Tilbury, Philip Thomas, Catherine Laws and Mark Knoop all on pianos. Thomas himself appears on twelve tracks, being the featured pianist on "De Kooning," the album's one track without Tilbury. (On his blog, Thomas's own thoughts on this recording, and on Feldman generally, are fascinating.)

Across the two discs, the album includes a range of different contexts for pianists to play together. It opens (and closes) with Tilbury and Thomas together on the 1957 composition "Two Pianos," a piece that first helped introduce Tilbury to Feldman's music when he and Cornelius Cardew played it together at Conway Hall around 1960. Each pianist is given the same single sheet of music to play, moving through it at their own pace. The end result is a complex piece in which the two pianos overlap and complement one another to good effect. To emphasise the variable nature of the piece, for comparison purposes a second version concludes the album. In both versions, the quietness of the performances focuses listeners' attention on the sounds rather than sweeping them along.

Also from 1957, "Piece for Four Pianos" repeats the format of "Two Pianos" but for four pianists. Famously, at one performance of the piece, where John Cage was one of the four pianists, he finished twenty minutes after the other three! Despite differences between the four pianists, no such mismatches are in evidence here, and the piece, though more complex than the two-piano version, creates just as impressive and pleasing an effect.

In 1966, Feldman adopted a totally different approach on "Two Pieces for Three Pianos." As Thomas explains, rather than the three pianists all playing the same music in their own way, "The first piece combines two different notation types: the first and second pianos read only stemless noteheads, with the instruction to play each event once the decay of the previous event has begun; the third piano part is fully notated with very precise durations, metre and ever-changing tempi. Each player follows their own part dogmatically—there is very little room for listening and responding to the other players." Consequently, the three pianos—Tilbury, Thomas and Laws—fit together perfectly, like the pieces of a jigsaw, together creating wonderfully tranquil music that unfolds at its own pace, with its own irrefutable logic; in a nutshell, classic Feldman in peak form.

Taken together, all of the piano pieces here constitute an object lesson in Feldman's writing for his favourite instrument. Very different, but just as beguiling are the four tracks that combine one, two or three pianos with other instruments including cellos, violins, chimes, percussion, horn and trombone. Interspersed among the entirely piano-based pieces, they serve to add variety to the album's soundscape and to demonstrate that Feldman's music for other instruments is just as effective as that for piano. Before the arrival of this album, it seemed as if Another Timbre releases by Laurence Crane and Skogen would battle it out for best recording of 2014. Now, though, it has become a three horse race that is too close to call...

Track Listing: Two Pianos; Four Instruments; Vertical Thoughts 1; Between Categories; Piece for Four Pianos; Piano Four Hands; Intermission 6; De Kooning; Two Pieces for Three Pianos; Piano Three Hands; False Relationships and Extended Ending; Two Pianos second version.

Personnel: John Tilbury: piano (1-7, 9-13 ) ; Philip Thomas: piano (1, 3-13) ; Anton Lukoszevieze: cello (2, 4, 8, 12) ; Mira Benjamin: violin (2, 4, 8, 12) ; Rodrigo Constanzo: chimes (2, 4, 12) ; Seth Woods: cello (4) ; Linda Jankowska: violins (4) ; Taneli Clarke: chimes (4), percussion (8) ; Catherine Laws: piano (5, 9, 10) ; Mark Knoop: piano (5) ; Naomi Atherton : horn (8) ; Barrie Webb: trombone (12).

Title: Two Pianos and other pieces, 1953-1969 | Year Released: 2014 | Record Label: Another Timbre

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