• Les Quatre Temps Cardinaux
: Review

There are a few works that announce their stature in their opening bars, such as Beethoven’s Third and Fifth Symphonies, or Haydn’s “Lord Nelson” Mass. After a brief, mumbled introduction (an actor reading poet René Daumal’s words), David Felder’s Les quatre temps cardinaux (“The Four Cardinal Times”: dawn/spring, noon/summer, sunset/fall, night/winter) becomes one of them. It proves to be a grand but never grandiloquent work.

Felder (1953–) is an American composer who has long been almost a one-man conservatory at SUNY Buffalo, having taught more than 80 composers there. He, his music, and organizations he runs have won a page-full of awards and prizes. Only two all-Felder discs have made it to Fanfare; John Story in 25:6 and David DeBoor Canfield in 37:3 were both enthusiastic, suggesting that Felder’s music, while not for the masses, is well worth the effort needed to come to terms with it.

Les quatre temps cardinaux could be called an oratorio—although English audiences of the 19th century—even the 20th—might not recognize it as such. Felder refers to it simply as an “extended work.” It is based on the eponymous poem by René Daumal, sung in French in eight of the 12 movements (Daumal’s four stanzas—the four seasons—are each presented in two different settings). The poems in other movements, in English, are by Robert Creeley and Dana Gioia. The Fifth movement, Fragments (from Neruda), is just that. More important than the poems themselves is what Felder has done with them, raising them to another level to create an artistic whole. The splitting up of Daumal’s poem into its four stanzas, and the double settings of each, knit the work together as does musical structure in more conventional works.

Felder’s music is astonishing: Lush, wild, and fierce, it is the most exciting new music I’ve heard in two decades. If Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar (2000) was the “Eroica” of the 21st Century, Les quatre temps cardinaux (2013) is its Symphonie fantastique. Some will say that there is too much in Felder’s piece, that it goes beyond the bounds of accepted musical taste; they said that about the fantastique, too. In 2015, Felder added “an important, complementary video and lighting component, always envisioned.” (Pray for a video recording!) Some passages are strictly orchestral, some strictly electronic; those that combine both are the most successful blending of the two in the sixty-some years of such efforts. By that I mean that the result seems perfectly natural: a unified sonic world making the best of all its elements; the blend is so subtle that one sometimes cannot tell one from the other. There are some purely electronic passages that might seem unmusical by themselves; heard in context, they contribute much to the work. Most movements have a lengthy instrumental and/or electronic postlude that serves as connection into the next. The music is tonal and often dissonant; to ears comfortable with 20th-Century music, there is nothing here to annoy. But it is complex new music, so some will need time to become accustomed. Believe me, it will be worth it.

The soprano part ranges from low contralto to soprano stratosphere. Laura Aikin stays on pitch throughout the series of leaps, her voice cuts through some mighty, percussion-laded tutti, and she has a marvelous ability to make words intelligible through stretched notes and ungodly leaps. Bass Ethan Herschenfeld also has a powerful instrument that can surmount the clamor; he too is always intelligible. Poets Creeley and Gioia read their poems; Neruda does so by an old recording, but his speech is atomized by electronic manipulation. The performance by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project is magnificent; it’s as if this were a consensus interpretation arrived at through years of performances.

Recorded sound on the CD is excellent—one thinks one hears everything, in ideal balance. On SACD, surround sound opens up a new world, dazzling and overwhelming. The booklet contains a superb seven-page essay by Paul Griffiths, much of which is devoted to a detailed analysis of Les quatre temps cardinaux. I love Griffiths’ writing: “Drums batter at the music to rethink itself.” He equates the music of track four with “the hot intensity of Varèse’s Equatorial.” My only nit is that one track mark seems misplaced: Gioia reads his poem Insomnia at the end of track 10, but it belongs on track 11. Everything else about this production is stunning, James H. North

Five stars: A wondrous new work that makes a stunning impression.