Not everything performed at HCMF is brand new, yet there are occasions when it feels as though one’s hearing a familiar piece for the first time. This happened last year with Morton Feldman‘s Piano Four Hands, a work that dates back over half a century, composed in 1958. One of a series of works experimenting with notation and interaction that Feldman composed during this period, it’s a piece that had hitherto left me entirely cold, a response that, having heard it in a variety of interpretations, i’d assumed must be something to do with Piano Four Hands itself. That belief was overturned on 25 November 2014, when Philip Thomas and John Tilbury began their afternoon concert with the piece, and finally everything coalesced.
The answer—at least, the answer for me—seems to be nothing more complex than pace. Feldman’s ostensibly simple adjuration that the two pianists perform their individual parts “slow … durations are free” of course allows for a considerable amount of performative scope, with the work’s overall duration being concomitantly variable. Somehow, without in any way compromising the word “slow”, Thomas and Tilbury managed to inject some electric charge through the floating motes of pitch, connecting them both horizontally and, crucially, vertically in a way that i have never heard before. Significantly, as a result their performance lasted quite a bit under six minutes, the shortest i’ve encountered; many seem to fall around eight minutes, with one rather extreme rendition lasting well over 11.
But i said the answer was pace, not duration, and that is where the magic ultimately seems to lie in Piano Four Hands. In Thomas and Tilbury’s Huddersfield performance, their respective materials combined to form a coherent, elegiac processional of sorts, subdued and submerged. Beginning in a largely diatonic environment, an oblique kink just over two minutes in abruptly throws the focus out; one feels genuinely lost for a time, yet even when things seem to become more definite again, subsequent minor inflections and apparent rogue chords reveal that the whole piece is somewhat rogue, and what seemed like a foundation and sure footholds were actually nothing of the kind. By challenging the veracity of the vertical in this way, we’re brought to the musical surface, concentrating hard now on the horizontal, feeling how each successive note either reinforces or countermands what is currently resonating around it. i value this kind of perspective-altering bewilderment; it questions the things one had perhaps taken for granted—and despite the ephemerality of this step-by-step kind of surety, it’s no less hypnotic or emotive a place to be.
How much all of this is to do with Morton Feldman and how much with Philip Thomas and John Tilbury is a question one could debate for a long time (and probably still not reach a definitive conclusion). All i know for certain, in the wake of this HCMF 2014 performance, is that there’s a great deal more to Piano Four Hands than i’d previously appreciated.