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CD Review

Morton Feldman


Petra Hoffmann, soprano
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Kwamé Ryan
Col Legno WWE1CD20081 DDD 56:41
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You say "nee-ther" and I say "nye-ther," but let's not call the whole thing off. This "opera in one act" with words by Samuel Beckett has little to do with opera as we usually understand it. There is only one singer, she does not play a role, and there are no sets, costumes, or action. The drama is entirely in your head, if you will. It is an unusual work for Morton Feldman as well. The music seems sick unto death and is post-apocalyptically bleak. These qualities are seldom far away in Feldman's compositions, but here they are uncommonly close. Neither is not something you listen to when you're feeling down.

Beckett's short text, which begins "to and fro in shadow from inner to outer shadow/from impenetrable self to impenetrable unself/by way of neither" can be read as a meditation on the futility of pursuit of self-knowledge. (Or not.) It tends to reduce the sum value of human life to the level of stimulus and blind response. This is not a very life-enhancing message, and Feldman sets it to music that creeps along with a cold, alien intelligence. The soprano sings the text, often one syllable at a time, at the extreme top of her range. From time to time she is allowed a desolate run or pattern of several notes, and then Feldman repeats the pattern until the result sounds less like a form of minimalism than a musical description of cell division. The orchestra paces, starts, and pauses, and then paces, starts and pauses again like strange machinery programmed to calculate and recalculate equations whose purpose no human remembers. All this occurs at a soft dynamic level, a feature of much of Feldman's work. Over the course of an hour, we are trapped like flies in the music's sticky web, and we are not even allowed a coup de grace: Neither simply "runs out" without warning or fanfare.

Repulsed? Because there is nothing like Neither, it is difficult to describe. It is equally difficult to ignore. This work is a must for any Feldman collection, or for anyone who is intrigued by musical envelope-pushing at its most extreme. I find Neither as shockingly beautiful as it is disorienting and distancing.

Neither was recorded a few years ago for the hat ART label in a limited edition of 2500. That recording, which I have not heard, features soprano Sarah Leonard and Zoltán Peskó conducting the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra. One might find a used copy, but it is gone for all practical purposes. I wish I could hear it, because Leonard's voice, part choirboy and part laser, would have added another dimension to this work. Hoffman is very fine, however, and her stamina and concentration are astonishing. This recording, after all, is "live," recorded in Munich on July 10, 1998. Ryan and the Bavarian orchestra produce an infinite variety of shades and hues, and this is important, because timbre is everything in Feldman's music. There are audience coughs and other noises, but I can't detect much restlessness. The present recording is over six minutes longer than the hat ART, which suggests slower tempos. This disc is vehemently recommended, but not to morbidly sensitive types.

Copyright © 2001, Raymond Tuttle