Don’t Touch that Dial

You old codgers my age will remember that on Morton Feldman’s vinyl recordings from the ’70s, there was often a warning on the back cover: “Play at a low volume level.” The music was supposed to be soft, but it seemed a disservice to record it at a low level – might as well get the best signal-to-noise ratio possible and leave the composer’s intended dynamics to the mercy of the consumer and his volume knob. Well, pianist Marilyn Nonken gave me her new Mode recording of Feldman’s Triadic Memories, and told me that it had been recorded very close-miked on a magnificent piano so that you could hear every nuance of what went on around the piano strings, and therefore I needed to play it at a quiet level. I chuckled at the memory, and then, sure enough, on the back of the program booklet is a warning in big letters: “play softly.”

Well, she’s right. The sound on this disc is so superbly present that if you leave your stereo at a normal level, you get the bizarre effect of a piano being softly played and outrageously amplified. You have to turn it down, and even so, every detail is just as close as if you were leaning over the soundboard while she plays. Nonken’s performance is equally detailed. There’s such a temptation with Triadic Memories – Feldman’s greatest piano piece, and thus one of the great piano works of the 20th century, 80 to 90 minutes long and now available on at least seven different recordings – there’s such a temptation to smooth out the prickly rhythms, and let the music float and turn ambient. Nonken resists. Her rhythms twist and turn with Feldman’s peculiar notation, and her tone color, though soft, is melodically urgent, not self-effacing. It’s a dynamite performance captured on a spectacularly pristine recording.