Sylvie Courvoisier, Mark Feldman, Erik Friedlander: Abaton

Erik Friedlander

This two-CD set isn’t short on playing time, though I wonder whether there might not be a little too much on it — at least for the reviewer’s convenience. I think there is a bit too much on CD one; I’m sure there is on CD two.

Forget anything about jazz or varieties of contemporary improvised music; this is European concert, (maybe) chamber music in a style of the past hundred years, too concerned with musical values to have succumbed to temptations of up-to-dateness. The face of public taste remains unslapped, and the two string-players’ concern with melodic phrasing, especially Feldman’s on violin, would have been regarded as definitely old style and old hat just a few decades ago. I can pay no higher compliment to these musicians. Fashion doesn’t enter into it.

The first suggestion for a sampling is to proceed at once to the third of the four Sylvie Courvoisier compositions comprising the first CD. “Poco a Poco”, a duo for violin and cello, is an essay in interplay, with some long lines and no shortage of surprises. Feldman’s violin and Friedlander’s cello pass a remarkable test by generating expressive colours when playing in apparent unison.

On the whole, I take more to Courvoisier’s writing for these other instruments than to compositions where her own piano is to the fore. She uses all of the piano, not merely the entire keyboard, but also the insides accessed with fingers or mallets (though elsewhere more than on this recording). In the first two compositions she plainly has no fear of overpowering her partners — unless maybe the recording balance is wrong. The composition “Abaton”, the name of the trio, and of this CD, is the most satisfying of the four tracks, with lively interplay and her potentially explosive piano well restrained in the interactions of what are at times broken dance rhythms.

The second work, “Ododruin” (2000), is rather too much in two moods, the fearsome piano with its cold storms and the violin-led string interludes reminiscent melodically of (to encapsulate abruptly) some contemporary of Ravel. There’s a certain want of relation between the piano passages in the opening and in the conclusion, and the tender lyricism of the middle section(s). A crudity of contrast weakens attention to the detail.

I said “maybe” chamber music mostly in relation to the opening 20 minutes or so of “Ianicum” (2000, In Memory of Gerald Beal) because the piano makes one enormous racket in its crescendo. I would prefer something slightly less toward the sheerly physical, which could serve most of the same ends. What would be missed is the violence, and I say again violence, in the fearsomely edgy introductory music.

That may well be a criticism of the composer as performer of her own music. She seems to be underlining what she has written, rather than performing it. After some ingenious string-writing, she re-enters with a swirling noise from the piano’s innards like a great gong. Her subsequent interaction with Feldman again becomes very, and I am using the right word, loud. The gap between the noise of her piano at the start and the string duo music which follows detaches the latter, so that in a sense the music becomes stranded between being the entry of a second voice, and a continuity with the music where the piano is featured. It’s neither, and I am saying that it is neither the one thing, nor the other, nor properly a suspension between the two. There is something which fosters dissatisfaction in that deficiency of overall ensemble (meaning togetherness) in a composition which has no dreadfully blatant longueurs. I can’t blame the other two; quite simply, their instruments wouldn’t allow them to match the pianist, even if their exemplary decorum permitted. If they did match her passages of making noise of her music, they would ruin it with an oppressiveness from which they do pretty well save it.

A very long time ago, I was saddled with a lazy and (with reason) ill-respected music teacher. He did, however, observe that there can be problems for a composer playing his or her own work. Rather less naked abandon is needed, and serious consideration of a different performing sound palette — unless the engineering’s very wrong. I have a horrible feeling that the recording has something to do with the problem. Excessively close miking? I’ve heard the Courvoisier-Feldman duo in a modest hall and had no reason to complain about piano din. “Ianicum” sounds like symphony hall repertoire.

CD2 gripped me at once, Feldman improvising on a contrast between an almost Balkan bagpipe sound and his immense capacity for delicacy. The first five of the 19 improvisations kept me riveted, but after another two, I was definitely waiting for something which didn’t come. Its absence rather dogged me for about as long as I had previously been riveted, and to some extent the music in the middle may be less interesting than what went on before.

Then again, stopping is also saying something. To stop in the right place throws up in relief what has already been done. Adolescents just want more, without being aware of what they’ve had. This is the fact on which hack music is founded, meaningless difference laid on meaningless difference in the too often satisfied hope that they won’t be listening enough to appreciate how little actually is happening.

Nothing of the sort happens here. As I listen to the middle improvisations, I am taken further and further away from the experience of being flung back on what’s gone before by a beautifully judged end. I ceased to flag when, wittingly or otherwise, a cello and piano improvisation near the end using different melodic material managed somehow to be a reprise of an earlier violin-piano duet. My bearings had been restored.

There are cases where the music doesn’t make such demands on the listener and is not new and only some accountant’s stinginess has restricted the number of minutes per CD. In the case of these duets, less could have been more.

That’s only to recognise the standard of the best music here; perhaps variations one through eight and (approximately) 12-19 as the total contents of one CD would have made my complaints about limited quantity unfair and, above all, wrong. So I think I’m fairer and more nearly on the right lines suggesting that a shorter selection might actually have bowled me over: Feldman’s eastern neo-Asian sound, the thump of percussion, and the pianist’s move through a lyrical passage into drama, and silence, working both with the keys and with the strings, the Feldman solo, the wild zigeuner sawing — but always lyrically toned — over a tolling piano, string-plucking inside the piano, scampering cello.

The third and fourth compositions on CD one and the first seven and last five improvisations would be a CD better than I’d dare hope for. The actual composition “Abaton” does seem to be a standout, but I have had a lot to get through on this CD!