FELDMAN Rothko Chapel
In all my years of reviewing Feldman performances, I’ve never heard one so catastrophically misconceived as Robert Simpson’s jazz-hands misreading of Rothko Chapel. I was even tempted to ask Siri – could this be the one time that Robert Simpson the symphonist tried his hand at conducting Feldman before coming to his senses?
Considering the relative popularity of Rothko Chapel, the work has appeared on CD comparatively rarely. Philip Brett’s performance (released by the now defunct New Albion label, 10/92) still serves as a paradigm of subtle, sensitive Feldman interpretation, while Simpson goes awry in the first bar. The piece opens with a hushed timpani roll which Feldman, a composer for whom dynamic levels meant more than most, marked ppp, but which Simpson allows to slice noisily through the reverby recording. And by the time of Kim Kashkashian’s entry three bars later – her entry is marked mp, not that the differential is observed – I knew already that this performance had nowhere to go.
Brett’s UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus keep tight control over minimal vibrato and take careful notice of Feldman’s dynamic bandwidth – the conceptually inscrutable ‘barely audible’ included. But far from hanging nebulously between this world and the next like the colour spectrum in a Rothko painting, Simpson’s lusty, vibrato-rich Houston Chamber Choir sound as though they’re about to launch into Monty Python’s ‘Lumberjack Song’. Kashkashian over-emotes; and quite why the solo vibraphone entry near the end – arpeggiated quavers marked ppppp – needed to crash into view like a freight train remains a complete mystery.
John Cage’s delicate choral pieces don’t benefit from the Houston Chamber Choir approach, which leaves Sarah Rothenberg’s considered performances of Cage’s In a Landscape and miniatures by Satie to restore some sanity. Not enough, though, to forgive what went before. Best save your hard-earned moolah.