The contemporary music festival Milano Musica is this year dedicated to the works of Morton Feldman, a man who professed to be more influenced by contemporary art and Persian rugs than he was by other music. The concert took place in Gallerie d’Italia, a former bank now a contemporary art gallery, and pulled together pieces for violin and piano by Feldman and his American contemporaries.

Morton Feldman in 1976; image by Rob Bogaerts
Morton Feldman in 1976; image by Rob Bogaerts

Violinst Francesco D’Orazio and pianist Giampaolo Nuti were joined by a seated audience of around 200 in a gallery room with particularly sharp acoustics – that they were positioned at the far end on a Persian rug was a nice touch. The duo have collaborated extensively in the past on recordings of contemporary composers, and right from the opening Ives they played tightly and with a mutual zeal for the music.

But aspects of the programming felt slightly odd. Charles Ives’ Fourth Violin Sonata is a piece of programme music full of boyhood tunes, and everything about the piece felt different to the rest on the programme. If the piece’s function was to show how far American contemporary composers had come from their predecessors, it only left me feeling impatient to get to the meat of the concert. Cage’s Nocturne also felt incongruous. The composer’s attempts to “liberate the sounds from abstract ideas about them” were groundbreaking. But this piece is atypical of his output, full of classically impressionistic scales, and the point might have been made forcefully with another choice of music.

That said, the inclusion of a piece by Cage was entirely necessary in this telling of Feldman’s story. It was through Cage that Feldman met many of New York’s abstract expressionist painters, and they influenced his work profoundly. Jackson Pollock’s “action painting”, where the artist swayed over the canvas, dripping paint onto it, led Feldman to experiment with chance in his graphic scores where the performers are left to choose the notes. Feldman admired Mark Rothko’s shimmering blocks of colour that stripped painting of it prolixity, and he tried to create something similarly stark in his music.

More successful programming included Feldman’s Spring of Chosroes and Stefan Wolpe’s Form. The Feldman is a classic example of his post-1970s works where the pieces get longer and rhythm plays a larger role in creating the illusion of timelessness. Nuti’s opening chords were extremely even and D’Orazio never rose above pianissimo, just what was needed to allow this music to speak. The Wolpe utilises what he called opposing “gestures” of sound arranged adjacently, and here we saw a hint of what was to come in the music of his pupil Feldman.

A particular highlight was Feldman’s Extensions I, where the duo played exceptionally, spitting out disjointed shards of sound, each self-contained jewel different to the last and each imbued with an individual personality. The tunes of Ives were now a distant memory, and this was an expanse of unrelated pecks from piano and violin punctuated with menacing stabs and disconcerting silences. Gazing at the individual compositions of the rug in front of us, moving from one to the next, the whole experience brought to mind Feldman’s proclamation that like Mondrian he found himself “wanting to paint one flower at a time”.

What was so clever about the choice of venue was the way in which it aided understanding of Feldman. True, the gallery houses no work by abstract expressionists. But wandering around before the concert began, I found it striking the extent to which Milan’s artists of the 1950s covered similar ground to those of their New York contemporaries. “The Spatialists”, represented by Lucio Fontana’s slashed surfaces and Piero Manzoni’s crinkled canvas, were concerned not with images but with space itself, much as Feldman was concerned with sounds, not melodies. The “Concrete Art Movement” blurred the distinction between background and foreground much as Feldman does between accompanist and soloist. All of this got us in the right mindset for Feldman, and it fleshed out our understanding of the sort of thing he was up to.

The final two pieces made a broader point on the musical period. Elliott Carter’s Rhapsodic Musings demonstrates the longevity of the style expounded by Feldman and his contemporaries, and the virtuosic piece for solo violin is just one of the 14 works the composer wrote after his 100th birthday in 2008. Crumb’s Four Nocturnes showed the levels of extremity to which contemporary composers went in their search for new sounds, and Nuti leaned into the kernel of the piano, music stand now removed, looking like a man experimenting with some new, multifaceted machine. He dampened strings with his fingers, plucked them like a harpsichord and banged bits of the apparatus before him. D’Orazio dabbled up and down his finger board and plucked his strings with such ferocity it seemed they might break. The bold interpretation of this remarkable piece was a fireworks display of an ending to the evening’s proceedings.

Tonight’s concert was enjoyable and enlightening in equal measure. Though the choice of repertoire might have been tighter in places, the choice of venue was inspired, and it not so much as added to the evening as made it. The playing was superb throughout, and the performance of Extensions I was truly memorable.