A first question on meeting these two CDs from Atopos could well be… Are the recordings for and about Feldman and Skempton; or John Tilbury, the charismatic pianist who performs those composers" work with stunning yet unassuming concentration and engagement over two hours? That's the wrong question, though: the enterprising and visionary Atopos Foundation, based near Arezzo in the Tuscan hills in Italy, recognizes that the composer can be a work's best performer, and that such a relationship is an important and fortunate aspect of contemporary music. Both power and weakness follow from such a juncture: when the composer is "unavailable for comment", we certainly lose a dimension of their work. But when a musician such as the iconic John Tilbury (born in 1936) is involved, we have – without doubt in the case of Feldman and Skempton – the next best thing. And this thoroughly recommendable pair of CDs proves it.
The power here, the nexus between Tilbury and Feldman (1926-1987) and Skempton (born in 1947), comes from more than study and affinity (as is the case, say, between Brendel and Liszt and Schubert; and between Gould or Tureck and Bach). It comes from a life spent making music in similar ways. Tilbury has worked with the British improvisational group, AMM (founded in 1965), the Scratch Orchestra (founded in 1969) and the music of Cornelius Cardew and Christian Wolff. Of the many things they have in common the most significant is the successful marriage of musical discipline and open-ended freedom of maneuver with untrammeled experiment.
The results of such an approach are evident on these splendid CDs. For both Feldman and Skempton used improvisation and chance in their work. They both believe in stripping musical thought and development to their essentials. From Cardew, Skempton learnt to concentrate on the simple musical impulses that actually communicate to listeners. They're evident in this piece by Skempton as much as in any others of his broad and prolific output. Would that such exposure as this were now to bring him to the attention of a wider audience.
In the case of the lengthy and highly absorbing Triadic memories, written in 1981, the pianist is completely exposed. Not only acoustically (the works are appropriately closely miked on this recording), but also in terms of interpretation. For we are hearing Feldman's gentle, apparently understated, solo piano thoughts and feelings through Tilbury. Not for nothing is Tilbury acknowledged as the world's leading interpreter of Feldman with many recordings of his music; sadly few are currently available.
A second – and just as important – aspect of (Tilbury's) Feldman (and his Skempton, for that matter) is the primacy of the relationship between composer (and performer) and listener. For the relationship to work it's crucial that we are drawn into what is being offered. And Tilbury has a superb ability to "wait for us", almost, as we accustom ourselves the softness, the shyness, the reticence of such a long (part 1 lasts an hour and a quarter) and inward-looking piece as Triadic memories. By the same token, for Tilbury to emphasize the moment (this performance is happening now!) of the music-making is to have our attention redirected to its uniqueness. This uniqueness may have several components: for example, what Tilbury calls "playing on the edge, on the frontier between sound and no sound". Although this music never approaches inaudibility, extreme physical sensitivity is called for. There are many passages (towards the start of the second part is one such) when silence is just as vivid and pointed as the nevertheless pacific yet penetrating notes are. This is something that will differ at every performance. The sense of having been present at an "event" is compelling. As is an emphasis on the very nature of sound itself. Both are captured on these CDs as well as is possible.
Similarly, the acoustic of the venue; the temperature; the presence, disposition and even the mood of the audience; the instrument – they all contribute to the integrity and uniqueness of the performance – and of the relationship of performer to composition. Tilbury believes it futile to try and discount these factors, or "overcome" them. Indeed they are to be celebrated and exploited. So what we hear on this recording is in some ways a contradiction, for it will be identical (aside from differences in our state, as listeners) each time we hear it. Yet Tilbury has an amazingly intense presence… radiant, almost. It's that to which we relate as much as anything in the absence of the changing particularities of successive performances.
Skempton's Notti stellate a Vagli (Starry nights at Vagli) received its world premier in London in June 2008 with Tilbury. It was written as a companion piece to Triadic memories and in conscious homage to Feldman. The Atopos Foundation itself commissioned Notti stellate a Vagli. It differs from the Feldman in that it is less precisely notated. Again, Tilbury insists this is a virtue, and that it is the interpreter's job to respect what's written and not to try to add anything.
Notti stellate a Vagli is as spare as Triadic memories and inhabits the same soundscape. It's almost imitative at times, though moves with somewhat greater dynamism. Tilbury plays the Skempton with enough attention and involvement himself for us to hear the slightly more open flavor of it. The intervals seem generally greater and the pitch uniformly a little higher. There is a slightly keener sense of urgency. It might have made sense to order the tracks on the two CDs so that listeners were explicitly invited to hear Notti stellate a Vagli first. In any case, Skempton's an equally compelling piece, if much shorter at under 22 minutes.
This is all music that will cause you to stop and reflect. It is soft and gentle, quiet and sober. But it is not without passion, direction and impact. The danger, of course, is to play it for effect – and let it wander. Nothing could be further from Tilbury's approach. While remaining unostentatiously in control at all times, his experience and deep understanding of both Feldman's and Skempton's worlds mean that the performance is utterly compelling. The tight yet flexible command which Tilbury exercises have a physical effect as tension and sense of structural force build up over time. And the pieces do need that extended, unrushed space in which to develop. Yet Tilbury is never relaxed or lazy. Nor yet fatigued! This is a performance of great focus and perception.
If you're unfamiliar with either Feldman or Skempton, or have heard enough other music of theirs to want to explore further, you cannot go wrong with this recording. Current, aware and appropriately presented in every way, it's an amazing tour de force by Tilbury, and one which does him and all those (at Atopos) involved real credit. And don't be put off by the length and highly distilled nature of the somewhat out of the ordinary playing. Tilbury is shrewd and experienced enough to take you with him for every bar.
The sound on these CDs, then, is produced in ways highly suitable to the music. There are helpful essays (if a little hard to read… vertical leading too small) which will both inspire those already familiar with this music, and inform those who are not. It's not only because no other recordings of this music exist that they must receive a wholehearted endorsement. But because the technical standard of performance is as high as you would expect and the interpretation of the fascinating and important repertoire are both excellent.
Copyright © 2009, Mark Sealey