The music that Morton Feldman produced in the 10 years before his death in 1986 is among the most beautiful composed in the second half of the 20th century. The majority of those works are chamber pieces for various combinations of strings and piano, but a couple are for piano alone, and one of those is Triadic Memories, which received its first performance at the ICA in London in 1981. Further performances here have been rare, but Alexander Melnikov, better known for his performances of much more mainstream repertoire, devoted his latest Wigmore recital to this hugely demanding work.
Demanding for both the pianist and his audience, that is, for though by the standards of late Feldman Triadic Memories is a relatively short work – Melnikov’s performance took just over 90 minutes – its dynamic level rarely rises above pianissimo, and its musical material is often very basic, plaiting small sets of pitches into irregularly repeated chords, rocking ostinatos and wandering melodic shapes that can float free, or remain tethered to the bass.
All these ideas pass by like a frieze that’s unpredictable and directionless; it’s sometimes disrupted by unpredictable silences or frozen into nagging repetitions. Feldman gives no tempo indications, though the music seems to define its own natural pace, but the pedalling instructions are carefully prescribed, with instructions to play some sections with the sustaining pedal half-down, so that pitches acquire a fuzzy edge, and the music seems to slip out of focus, just out of reach.
It’s a bewitching process, which gradually draws listeners into its minutiae, and Melnikov’s performance, apparently the first of Triadic Memories he’d ever given in public, caught every detail of it exactly. He had his audience hanging on each change of inflection and shift of colour, so that every note mattered.