Every few months I take my ears out for a cleaning. This is not as easy as it sounds. Finding music that is original, unfamiliar, astringent, elevating and altogether uncomplacent restricts the seeker to the dustiest corners of recorded repertoire. And no sooner do you find a box that fits the bill than what you thought was household detergent comes stuffed with sticky minimalisms.
Anyway, this week, I’ve struck lucky with some top-grade industrial ear cleanser from a British pianist I’d normally associate with Beethoven, Rachmaninov and Messiaen. Steven Osborne, though, has a quirky turn of mind and a wonderful turn of phrase. The idea of interleaving Morton Feldman and George Crumb on a solo piano album is so counter-intuitive it would not occur to any other pianist in a month of car-wash Sundays.
Feldman (1926-87) is the ultimate urban ascetic, assembling music from bathroom fittings he took from a Greenwich Village bed-sit and half a croissant left over from yesterday’s breakfast. Crumb (born 1929) is a fusion composer of animal sounds and extreme electronica. Amazingly, the pair work together like Johnson & Johnson ear-buds.
You cannot imagine, until you hear it, what Crumb is going to do next in his Little Suite for Christmas, a fricassee of festive scraps and piano-string strummings, the sort of thing that might occur in a jam session involving John Cage, Pope John Paul II and a box full of legal highs. This is the generic opposite of a Christmas album, one you’d never give to a spinster aunt.
As for Feldman, he never lets you down. Just when you’ve classified him as an annoying epigrammatist, too clever for his own good, he delivers a contemplation of magic carpets under the title ‘Palais de Mari’ and grips your attention for a full half-hour. It’s his final piano work before pancreatic cancer took his life and every note of it is a world entire. What are you waiting for? This has to be heard.