Unlike the repetitions and slow-moving shifts characterizing his five-to-six-hour-long String Quartet No. 2, Morton Feldman’s 1979 String Quartet No. 1 is more of a mosaic on the surface, full of fragments bound by small silences. There are beautiful soft cluster chords in all registers, sometimes combining normal tones and harmonics, sometimes mixed bowed and plucked notes. Each instrument rapidly tosses the same pitch back and forth, articulating it differently. A few momentary pizzicato major and augmented chords jar the listener out of dissonant complacency. Glissandos appear and retreat rapidly. You never know what sound or pattern will come next, but Feldman manages to hold your attention throughout the quartet’s duration.
The FLUX Quartet’s recording differs from the work’s previous two commercial versions in several important respects. The ensemble adheres as strictly as possible to Feldman’s tempo directives and observes all of the written repeats, taking up 89 minutes to the Ives Ensemble’s 77 minutes and the Group for Contemporary Music’s 78 minutes. Compared to the latter two’s relatively close and detailed microphone placement, the FLUX Quartet is captured at a more distant perspective that allows the composer’s wide range of soft to super-soft dynamics to register in a realistic perspective. Then again, the FLUX Quartet calibrates balances, dynamics, and tonal shadings with a sense of refined teamwork that still allows each member’s individual profile its due.
Leader Tom Chiu’s control of high harmonics, violist Max Mandel’s warm tone on the low strings, cellist Felix Fan’s range of pizzicato colors, and second violinist Conrad Harris’ deft register shifts warrant special notice. They bring equal concentration and commitment to a pair of earlier and much shorter Feldman works, Three Pieces for String Quartet and Structures. While the main work’s 89-minute duration requires a spillover onto a second CD, Mode includes a DVD transfer for those who want to hear this gripping work (and very special performance) uninterrupted. Recommended.