I can’t imagine Morton Feldman, cantankerous curmudgeon that he was, would have been thrilled at the prospect of having his music paired with that of George Crumb, but Steven Osborne makes a solid case beyond any obvious fact that their careers happened to overlap during a certain period in the history of American music.
The arid, slapped clusters of Feldman’s Extensions 3 (1952) set the tone nicely for Crumb’s painterly, Giotto-inspired A Little Suite for Christmas, AD 1979 (1980), which itself begins with an accumulation of compacted clusters. But wisely Osborne doesn’t try to push any supposed stylistic affiliation too far. Intermission 5, Piano Piece 1952 and Extensions 3 are exemplars of Feldman’s formative experiments with reconfiguring musical scale, and were all written in 1952. The seamless procession of harmonically tangled dotted crotchets, alternating between right and left hands, arranged neatly to form Piano Piece 1952 is marked ‘Slowly and quietly with all beats equal’ and Osborne does Feldman’s bidding cleanly and accurately; clearly he’s thought long and hard about the implications Feldman’s indication has for shaking entrenched patterns of expressive behaviour.
If the challenge Piano Piece 1952 presents is keeping Feldman’s gyrating contours contained within a narrow bandwidth of dynamic and pulse, Intermission 5 and Extensions 3 are both concerned with blunt contrasts of dynamic and texture. On Mode, Aki Takahashi pushes Extensions 3 to a death-defying 6'43"; at 5'30" Osborne keeps a safety net, but this is a very fine performance. Abrupt juxtapositions of slammed fff chords breaking into echoing ppp aftershocks make the piano resonate like you never heard, and Hyperion’s microphones intimately capture the wailing overtones and ricocheting piano action.
Palais de Mari (1986) is Feldman’s most-recorded piano work, and Osborne’s supple control of overaching line and timbre means this is a real contender alongside hardcore Feldmanistas such as Aki Takahashi, John Tilbury (LondonHALL) and Steffen Schleiermacher (MDG). The sort of dramatic rhetoric Crumb throws around finds Osborne patrolling more familiar terrain, and A Little Suite for Christmas in particular receives a dramatically vigilant and eloquently coloured reading. Feldman and Crumb pair rather well together—but, shush, don’t tell Morty. (Gramophone)