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The unparalleled paradox of Morton Feldman


Morton Feldman, "For Bunita Marcus" performed by pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin (Hyperion)

"You are about to enter a world unlike any other" writes Marc-Andre Hamelin, one of the best, most audacious and most significant of all current classical pianists, in the notes to this. It is, he says, "a universe of sound completely unrelated to the narrative, linear musical physiognomies we are all used to. With 'For Bunita Marcus,' Feldman has managed to wipe the slate clean and invent a world which has its own laws, which must be dealt with on its own terms."

That means a 73-minute piece of "radically reduced dynamics" and "uncommon textural spareness." Hamelin compares it to Jorge Luis Borges' story "The Library of Babel" which he calls "one of the most startling original pieces of fiction ever written ... Every moment," says Hamelin of both Borges and Feldman "is a window toward the infinite."

And there you have some reasons why this is one of the greatest of all recordings of Feldman's music. It is played and presented here by a pianist perfectly attuned to Feldman both technically and intellectually.

The piece itself, though, presents an extremely nettlesome capstone of the story of Feldman as the greatest paradox in all of post-modern music. Nothing about this sublimely beautiful and daring music (tiny in gesture, vast in scale) is anything like Feldman's rough-hewn street personality which so many of us in Buffalo came to cherish and delight in for all time when he was the Varese Professor of Music at the University at Buffalo. The genuinely terrible irony about this musical masterpiece is that it is one of the two pieces alluding to young female colleagues that are among his greatest works (the other is "The Viola in My Life" dedicated to violist Karen Philips.) In this case, Bunita Marcus was the composer Feldman lived with for the final eight years of his life. After his death, she publicly alleged that their relationship involved hitherto unknown sexual abuse of her and other women by Feldman and theft of her musical ideas. On the Slipped Disc website, Norman Labrecht aired the story which led Marcus, in the comment section, to write that she lived in a state of "terror" with Feldman and was "soooo glad he died so I could live my life."

How ironic, then that her name will forever festoon one of his most extraordinary pieces, a work whose minimalist sonic delicacy is somehow conveyed in that epic sense of duration which occupied so much of Feldman's thought in his final years. Unlike the six-hour String Quartet no. 2, this piece of 72-minute duration is ideally heard on this recording--with a pianist in unerring attunement to all of it. Feldman's paradoxical strangeness as a figure in the world of post-modern aesthetics is matched by the immense power of his delicacy. Extraordinarily beautiful and rare -- one of the discs of the year.

4 stars (out of four)

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