Softly, softly

on the Huddersfield Festival's tribute to a composer who made no concessions
"Stockhausen asked me for my secret... And I said, `I don't have any secret, but I do have a point of view; it's that sounds are very much like people. If you push sound, it pushes you back. So, if I have a secret, it is: don't push the sounds around.' Karlheinz leans over to me and says: `Not even a little bit?' "

Karlheinz Stockhausen and Morton Feldman - the two main featured composers at this year's Huddersfield Festival, the latter of whom once related this anecdote - are the proverbial chalk and cheese. Yet both have aspired to cosmic enterprises. Stockhausen's seven-opera cycle, Licht, must be among the most ambitious undertakings designed for performance when the new millennium dawns.

Feldman - who died nine years ago - grew impatient with the limitations of short pieces, and began writing compositions which lasted at least half an hour, usually much more. Melody, consonance and regular rhythmic repetition play larger parts here than in his early works. He even manipulated sounds more openly, inspired by Oriental rug patterns; a fascinating festival lecture by Bunita Marcus, who was very close to Feldman in his last years, elaborated on these ideas. But the basic ingredients of his music - soft, slow sounds avoiding conventional rhetoric - remain the same.

Stockhausen is apparently planning to build an opera house for each of the seven operas of Licht near his home outside Cologne, where the cycle will supposedly play indefinitely. Feldman, by contrast, never properly addressed even the basic practical problems his late works posed. Requiring such concentrated listening, even his earlier pieces have a hard time in the concert hall. The long works cry out for special circumstances: not just retreats from the bustle of traffic and people, but places with a conducive atmosphere and appropriate lighting. And comfortable seats. The best performances of late Feldman I've ever heard were in a church side chapel on a quiet sunny afternoon in Hartford, Connecticut, and in the library of London's Reform Club.

Richard Steinitz, Huddersfield's director, this year provided a welcome and rare opportunity to hear four of the long compositions - five if you include Samuel Beckett's typically austere play Words and Music, with music by Feldman. I caught three of these on the final weekend, amidst the usual range of work the festival continues to offer.

Why Patterns? (1978) for various flutes (but a single player), glockenspiel and piano is a relatively modest 35 minutes. It was included in a Sunday morning recital in St Paul's Hall (the main festival venue) by Ensemble Recherche otherwise devoted to early Feldman, including the rare and beautiful O'Hara Songs, exquisitely sung by Omar Ebrahim. This German group had been marvellous in the theatrical antics of Dieter Schnebel's glossolalie 94 a day earlier - in a programme which also included the Beckett, in which Feldman's snippets for a small ensemble sounded more like interludes of self-pastiche than the intended integrated contribution. But in Why Patterns? these players evidently lacked the ability to project the sounds with the necessary combination of beauty and control and to take the measure of this music's continuity.

In the same hall late on the previous night, however, all the ingredients came together in a performance of the 75-minute Piano, violin, cello (1987), the composer's final work. The Ives Ensemble from Holland - sensitive and secure musicians, who played Gerald Barry's typically manic and marvellous two piano quartets on Sunday afternoon - were alert to Feldman's every demand, to every nuance of his sound world. And to the way he shapes such works, too: alternating chiefly chordal piano and strings for about 40 minutes, then starting to unravel the string lines, introducing pizzicato (a magical moment) and placing by now familiar material in new contexts. The acoustic of St Paul's is just sufficiently reverberant to allow sounds to bloom without churchy echo. The late-night atmosphere was quiet and just right; the audience concentrated as audiences these days hardly ever do. This was the most moving experience I've had in the concert hall for some time