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This new box set contains nearly all of Feldman’s solo piano music. It appears two decades after John Tilbury’s long-unavailable 4-CD set, and has several pieces not found there. In that time, the composer’s reputation has been transformed. Then, a new Feldman recording was an event; now it’s hard to keep up with the release schedule.

Music for solo piano dominates Feldman’s output. The earliest composition here is an untitled piece from 1942, one minute long; the last is Palais de Mari from 1986, the year before Feldman’s death. In 1964-77, he didn’t write for solo piano, though piano featured in ensemble compositions. The piece he wrote on return to the medium, Piano, is one of his most remarkable – this performance brings out its incredible rhythmic variation and detail.

Philip Thomas has been playing Feldman’s music for 25 years and is one of his foremost interpreters. When I ask him why he thinks the composer is now so popular, he responds that even though the music is ‘structurally peculiar and often quite alien … there is a danger it can slip into the category of ambient, spiritual or easy listening, due to its consistently soft dynamics’. His recording counters that – ‘by making the softs feel close and alive rather than distant and dreamy.’ Superficial factors aside, Thomas cites the reasons he fell in love with Feldman’s music long ago: ‘He knew how to compose extraordinary sounds, and his sensitivity to harmony, pace and timbre are simply winning qualities.’

As is well-known, Feldman made much of his desire to eliminate attack from the piano’s sound – which seems impossible, given that the instrument’s action is percussive. Perhaps commentators are taking the composer too literally here – attack cannot be eliminated, but it should be as gradual and imperceptible as possible. Yet it would be wrong to conclude that Feldman advocates ‘the art that conceals art’ – non-processual and concealing the process of making. There are numerous issues of notation in Feldman’s music, and many pianists, Thomas included, prefer to play from his manuscripts rather than the typeset score which has errors and inconsistencies. Feldman’s compositional practice was conditioned by the layout of bars on the manuscript page – what he called ‘the grid’ – and this is lost in most typeset editions. These facts give the music what’s been called a ‘handmade’ quality. (Feldman always composed at the piano.)

As Thomas writes in his long booklet essay, these recordings aim for ‘intimacy of private experience’ as opposed to shared concert listening. This has meant compromise where the dynamic level is uncharacteristically higher. To call this ‘compression’ implies a crass entertainment approach, quite foreign to the subtlety which this release exhibits on all levels of performance, interpretation and recording. It’s a magnificent achievement, that beautifully captures Feldman’s extraordinary sound-world.

ANDY HAMILTON Read the full review on Agora Classica


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