• Jeu de Tarot
: Review

David Felder: Jeu de Tarot (feat. Irvine Arditti)
Coviello Contemporary

David Felder: Les Quatre Temps Cardinaux
Coviello Contemporary

Testifying to the high regard with which American composer David Felder (b. 1953) is held is the calibre of personnel featured on these releases. Heather Buck and Ethan Herschenfeld are the vocal soloists on Les Quatre Temps Cardinaux, and violinist Irvine Arditti and the Arditti Quartet appear on Jeu de Tarot; both recordings feature Ensemble Signal conducted by Brad Lubman, with the Slee Sinfonietta also contributing to the song cycle. The instrumental elements common to the releases bolster their complementary character, despite the differences between the works presented. Not only is Felder, a SUNY Distinguished Professor at the University at Buffalo and Artistic Director of the Slee Sinfonietta, the beneficiary of esteemed performers but also superb presentation by Coviello Classics, with each recording presented in high-quality sound and the packages enhanced by informative booklets.

Though a superb recording of the song cycle Les Quatre Temps Cardinaux was issued last year by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) and conductor Gil Rose, this iteration by Ensemble Signal and Lubman is as worthy of attention. Interestingly, Herschenfeld is the solo bass on both recordings, with Buck, who's performed and recorded with the BMOP numerous times, in the solo soprano role. Scored for soprano, bass, orchestra and electronics, the work is better appreciated when accompanied by an account of its form and content, even if an abbreviated one.

Structurally, it uses the four stanzas of the titular poem by René Daumal (1908–1944) as its scaffolding, with each stanza strategically positioned within the fifty-minute work. Its linear unfolding is offset by its cyclical dimension, specifically the “four cardinal times” of dawn, noon, sunset, and midnight, and by particular repetitions, with the opening stanza, for example, spoken and sung four times during the piece. Electronics are used to fragment and reshape the spoken recitation of the poem, and Daumal's text is supplemented by those of Robert Creeley, Dana Gioia, and Pablo Neruda. As this alternately lyrical and turbulent creation advances, Neruda's and Creeley's words are altered electronically, Gioia's are read by him, and Daumal's words are also spoken, but by another. Dualities abound, between the acoustic and electronic, voice and instrument, text and music, and speech and song.

Even a single exposure to the work brings its episodic design into sharp relief. “Preface/Stanza 1a” emerges gently, with the French recitation of Daumal's text lending the material a distinctive aura before Buck's wordless vocalizing is joined by the dreamlike swirl of the instrumental design. The text is repeated in “Stanza 1b” but this time by both singers in a step-wise pattern that's mirrored by the musical collective. In “Spring Light,” Buck, whose presence is greater during the work's first half than the second, sings the words to Creeley's poem with characteristic sensitivity before a rhythmic episode sees the poet's own recitation reduced to a micro-stutter. The baton's handed to Herschenfeld for the tumultuous “Stanza 2a” before returning to Buck for an even more turbulent “Fragments” where the musical forces threaten to overwhelm the singer.

Agitation permeates these parts and the noontide-associated “Stanza 2b,” which makes the subdued calm of “Stanza 3a” all the more conspicuous. Winter is now upon us, with glassy harmonics and textures suggesting the chilliness of the season and Buck's vocalizing throwing a connecting line back to the opening movement. “Buffalo Evening” is distinguished by Creeley's reading of the text, which references the season directly in its words “Winter sits quiet here, snow piled by the road, the walks stamped down or shoveled” and is followed by Herschenfeld's own rendering supported by icy instrumental timbres. With the advent of the eleventh part, “Insomnia,” the mutating ebb-and-flow of Les Quatre Temps Cardinaux continues, with the presentation briefly turning to recitation in Gioia's reading before Herschenfeld's vocalizing of the text reinstates the unusual character of Felder's conception. The bass singer's deep voicing (in French) of Daumal's fourth stanza brings the work to a satisfying resolution, though Buck and the musicians return for a postlude that accentuates the cyclical dimension. In keeping with the character of Daumal, who's described in the programme booklet by Tim Rutherford-Johnson as a “surrealistic poet, mystic, and scholar of Sanskrit,” Felder's compositional design is similarly surrealistic in the way it stitches disparate elements into a daring whole.

Performed by Irvine Arditti with Ensemble Signal, the wholly instrumental Jeu de Tarot is almost as enigmatic a creation as Les Quatre Temps Cardinaux. Of course its title immediately calls to mind Stravinsky's ballet Jeu de cartes, but Felder's chamber violin concerto stands apart from it and any other work, for that matter. In Jeu de Tarot, seven movements are named, naturally, after cards in a Tarot deck, their titles, in order: "The Juggler"; "The Fool"; "The High Priestess"; "The Hermit"; "The Empress"; "The Hierophant"; and "Moonlight." Such titles present the composer with unbounded opportunities for imaginative expression and the listener with enigmatic meanings to wrestle over. Just as the cards invite any number of interpretations, so too do the work's individual parts. Whereas the off-kilter balancing act between violin and harpsichord lends “The Fool” irreverence, “The High Priestess” opts for a sober meditation and “The Empress” swarms with splashes of colour. While no one would mistake Felder for a member of the Second Viennese School, there are moments during “The Hierophant” that suggest some degree of similarity between its writing and that of Berg's Violin Concerto. Regardless, Arditti excels throughout in adapting his playing to each movement's distinctive sound world.

Joining Jeu de Tarot on this release are Netivot (2016) and Another Face (1988), the former a three-part piece written for and performed by the Arditti Quartet and the latter a single-movement setting performed by Irvine Arditti alone. The mystical dimension of Jeu de Tarot arises in Netivot also, with its title from the Hebrew for ‘paths' and the movement titles also carrying with them mystical resonance: “Devekut” (‘dedication') and “Hitbodedut” (‘self-seclusion') are associated with forms of spiritual practice within Jewish Kabbalah and both forms of prayer. The title of the closing movement, “Pillars of Clouds and Fire,” references Exodus and specifically the two pillars through which the Israelites were guided out of the desert by God. In keeping with the subject matter, the musical material ranges between introspection and wide-eyed wonder, and the quartet invests its performance with the care and fastidious attention to detail for which it's become known. Inspired by Kobo Abe's The Face of Another, Another Face explores the notion of identity, the springboard in this case Abe's story about a scientist who, disfigured as a result of an industrial accident, undergoes a face transplant. In exemplifying an incessant mutational quality, Felder's musical treatment could thus be seen as a meditation on the ever-changing nature of identity. Arditti makes the most of the solo opportunity in a bravura demonstration of his technical, interpretive, and expressive capabilities.

One of the biggest compliments one could pay to a composer applies here: the two primary pieces by Felder sound like the work of no other composer, even if they fit comfortably within the contemporary classical tradition. Each establishes its own idiosyncratic sound world and registers as a Felder creation in the most complete sense. They wouldn't be as arresting, of course, if the performances weren't as striking; with that in mind, Felder is fortunate to have had the Arditti Quartet, Ensemble Signal, Slee Sinfonietta, Brad Lubman, Heather Buck, and Ethan Herschenfeld on hand to bring the works into physical being. The distinguished contribution Irvine Arditti makes to the Jeu de Tarot release certainly justifies the prominent billing he receives.

July 2021