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Listening Post: Morton Feldman’s ‘Rothko Chapel’ and other works

The two great masterpieces of Morton Feldman were written just before Feldman joined the State University at Buffalo faculty as its Varese Professor of Music in 1973. Both feature the Viola and are contemplative and lyrical to the point of actually seeming celestial before they’re through. They are truly heavenly works very much belied by their prosaic titles “The Viola in My Life” and “Rothko Chapel.” (Only Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians” provides a greater contrast between titular blandness and lavishness of new music sonic beauty.)

“Rothko Chapel” was Feldman’s work in honor of the paintings that his abstract expressionist friend Mark Rothko created for an Interfaith Chapel in Houston, Texas that has henceforth been known as “Rothko Chapel.”

The 40th anniversary concert of the Rokthko Chapel in 2011 is recapitulated on this disc with Feldman’s great work as its leadoff centerpiece. The idea of the concert was to present Feldman’s friendship with the artist of abstract purity in conjunction with one of Feldman’s own greatest influences – John Cage – and one of the composers in turn who’d been most influential for Cage, Erik Satie.

The instrumentation of “Rothko Chapel” was virtually what could fit in the chapel itself after violist and pianist – singers and chamber chorus. The stunningly compatible music performed along with “Rothko Chapel” was: Cage’s “Four,” “Five” “ear for EAR (Anitphonies)” and “In a Landscape,” and Satie’s piano pieces “Gnossiennes 1, 3 and 4”, “Ogive Nos. 1 and 2.”

Performed here by violist Kim Kashkashian, pianist Sarah Rothenberg and the Houston Chamber Choir make this, perhaps, the perfect introductory record for those who need an introduction to the increasingly world-conquering musician who spent his final years teaching in Buffalo.

Surrounding repertoire, performance and engineering level conspire to make this the definitive version of one of Morton Feldman’s two definitive works.

4 Stars (out of 4)

– Jeff Simon

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