Morton Feldman and George Crumb. Both white, male American contemporaries. Both composers of predominantly quiet, slow music that exploits the transfixing power of silence, that seems full of mysterious, dramatic and enigmatic rites. By putting the two men side-by-side, as Steven Osborne has on his fascinating new album, their profound differences are hugely amplified. And, sad to say, Crumb comes off a bit the worse for wear.
Slammed up against Feldman’s epic, craggy, abstract, uncompromising majesty, Crumb’s slighter music sounds entranced by surface effect, seduced by momentary felicities, unable to see the forest for the trees. But Crumb does grow trees of great beauty, from the Debussy-lite opening of Processional to the rapt contemplations and awkward ‘Orientalisms’ of A Little Suite, a sort of Crumb-ian picture-book ode to Messiaen’s Vingt Regards. Osborne brings Crumb’s works to life without bells and whistles, treating his music with a seriousness of purpose that is rare for a composer who is often interpreted with tremulous mysticism or sweaty drama.
Feldman’s works, drawn from very early and very late in the composer’s creative life, are stark and captivating, helped enormously by Osborne’s sure hand on the tiller. Osborne has long been the master of dynamic and tonal control, and his almost superhuman skills deliver, as rarely before, the infinitesimally subtle gradations notated in these Feldman scores. In Osborne, we also have a refreshingly uncompromising tour guide, who refuses us faster, louder, more Technicolor interpretations that might sell Feldman more ‘easily’. By taking Feldman at his word, the myriad tolling bells, slow unfoldings and existential questions emerge richer, multifaceted. Hyperion’s recorded sound is typically warm and velvety, giving unusually plush cushioning for the music of these gruff, unpredictable Americans.