The Spanish-German pianist Alfonso Gómez has dared to put Morton Feldman’s last three piano works on CD. His interpretation is remarkably light and sparkling, adding a new element to the meditative sound world of this American composer.
The piano was the favourite instrument of Morton Feldman (1926 – 1987). “What is the difference between an orchestra and a piano? A piano has pedals”, he once said. The three works on the CD – Triadic Memories (1981), For Bunita Marcus (1985) and Palais de Mari (1986) – are iconic of Feldman’s compositional trajectory. Firstly, because of their length. The first two pieces each last almost an hour and a half, Palais de Mari 25 minutes. Furthermore, the limitation of the musical material is striking. Triadic Memories is largely built on three closely spaced notes (c#, d and e-mol) that are combined in increasingly varied ways, played by both hands over the entire register. He also makes use of a half depressed right pedal, which allows harmonies to resonate longer but without becoming an acoustic soup.
Feldman has refined this technique in For Bunita Marcus, where the half-depressed pedal provides a constant resonance upon which the melodic patterns are superimposed. In this piece, dedicated to the woman with whom he was together for seven years, he uses the metre as a formal characteristic. The rests are packed into long bars and the melodic material into short ones. Feldman has used this technique before, but in this piece, he has put so much perfection into it that it almost seems like a system – something that would disgust him.
“I don’t know in advance how long a piece will last,” Feldman said in a lecture, “a lot depends on emotional and personal circumstances. I wrote For Bunita Marcus when my mother had died. It was as if I wished she would stay with us a little longer. I didn’t want the piece to die too. Compositionally, I tried to keep this piece alive like a terminal patient”. Feldman drew many ideas and inspiration from other art forms such as painting and oriental carpets. Palais de Mari is unconsciously reminiscent of tapestry art: a fusion of four tones, with a boundless wealth of timbres, in an autumnal coloration. It requires a light, delicate and constant touch to let this piece breathe.
Alfonso Gómez (b. Vitoria, Spain, 1978) stood out last year with a charming lightfooted interpretation of Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus. Earlier, he had recorded works by, amongst others, Ravel and Debussy. In a written interview with westwind he says: “I had played Feldman before, but in the lockdown I immersed myself almost obsessively in his latest works. Peace of mind and isolation were essential for maximum concentration and for finding the right pulse and tempo. This is especially true of his last works, where the structures stretch to extreme lengths, and where sound and dynamics are essential to finding the right colour.”
“Although the three recorded works belong to Feldman’s last period, there are major differences. In For Bunita Marcus, rhythm is not just a parameter in the musical discourse, but an essential part of the structure. The rhythms are constantly varied. Therefore, I have tried to play as rhythmically as possible, which is not easy because many measures are full of rests. Triadic Memories is in my opinion a more abstract work, a gigantic mural in which Feldman plays with our musical memory and sound perception. Palais de Mari, on the other hand, is a magical work, in which the sense of rhythm is also very important, but more timbral and colourful. Motifs of few notes appear and disappear in an almost Darwinian way: only the most effective ones stay alive until the end.”
“Feldman’s compositions are tremendously organic, like an object that constantly changes its perspective. Our way of listening and our interpretations change too. And to understand his aesthetic concept, it was also very important to understand his admiration for Anatolian carpets, and to immerse myself in the narrative (or rather anti-narrative) style of the writer Samuel Beckett, of whom Feldman was idolized.”
“Challenges? Many. For example, I had to put aside my way of playing the piano to be able to play Feldman. I am not exaggerating. The more Feldman I practiced, the worse I played other composers. Take, for example, the dynamics in repetitions. Our teachers teach us to play repetitions as an echo, to make the repetition interesting, because apparently ‘there can be no identical repetition in music’. According to this premise, we would never reach the end of a composition by Feldman, because we would lose the tension. So, I had to learn to play all the notes with the same touch, the same dynamics, and, most importantly, without phrasing. Feldman once said that his music was soft because he was interested in the sound, not the touch. This has been one of the most difficult challenges for me.”
“Personally, it helps me to think not only in musical terms, but also in terms of forms, structures, words and colors. Passages of 10, 15 minutes have a certain shape for me, like a three-dimensional sculpture. This helps me to maintain tension in the long run and to give each passage a concrete character. I think his music is best played on a Steinway or Fazioli piano (C or D), in a medium-sized hall where the audience can concentrate better. “
“Aki Takahashi, the great pianist who has worked directly with Feldman, has been known to say that once she starts playing Feldman, she can’t stop. I think this perfectly describes the feeling and concentration we need to have when playing these works,” says Alfonso Gómez.
WHAT: Morton Feldman – Late Works for Piano
WHO: Alfonso Gómez, piano
LABEL: Kairos 0015106 (3 CDs)
RECORDING: May 2021
ENGINEERING: Johannes Ph. Müller
DATE: December 2021
PHOTOS: Badische Zeitung, Alice, KAIROS, Donostia Kultura