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John Cage was happy to be classed as a pianist on his union card, so perhaps it’s appropriate that the flurry of new releases marking his centenary in September should include several discs devoted to his piano works. The instrument often played a crucial role in his music, never more so than when he affixed various metal, wooden and rubber utensils to its strings and transformed it into a gamelan-like percussion ensemble. The prepared piano opened up new worlds of timbral possibilities that Cage explored for nearly a decade, chiefly in dance pieces, before writing his Sonatas and Interludes, the work that secured the prepared piano a presence in the concert hall.

Dozens of pianists have since recorded the Sonatas and Interludes and, despite Cage’s precisely configured ‘Table of Preparations’, no two pianos – and no two sets of screws, bolts, plastic spoons, etc – sound alike, which means each performance will generate its own spectra of timbres. The late James Tenney, a composer who admired and was admired by Cage, recorded his version in 2002, just a few years before he died, though it’s only now being released. His brisk, bracingly abrasive, brightly percussive account, part analytical, part declamatory, is like an inquisitive composer’s test drive of the piece and makes for an exhilarating ride. In contrast, Cédric Pescia opts for liquidly chiming timbres, but in trying a little too hard to sound ‘musical’ errs towards blandness. He also comes unstuck in the final sonata, adopting a bizarrely slow tempo that sounds mannered and precious. My personal favourite of this trio is the John Tilbury set, reissued from 1975, partly because I love the array of softly rustling metallic timbres he elicits from the piano, and partly because I think his air of detached fascination is truly Cagean in spirit, in its wish to ‘let the sounds be themselves’. His low-key, disciplined approach yields a remarkable beauty.

Cage reverted to the normal piano for Music of Changes (1951), the first work he composed using chance operations derived from the Chinese oracular text, the I Ching, and a decisive step in his bid to take music beyond traditional Western frameworks that stretched from harmony to ‘individual taste and memory’.

Now it was the pianist that had to be prepared, and in David Tudor he found a performer of exceptional talent and total dedication – Tudor even used a stop-watch while playing to ensure that Cage’s devilishly tricky tempos, determined proportionately by the spaces between the notes, could be executed with absolute precision.

Hat Art has now remastered its previous reissue of Tudor’s original 1956 recording, so his spiky dynamism and pinpoint accuracy are clearer than ever. It’s a thrilling performance of a revolutionary work that, in its embrace of total and constant change, opened up entirely new ways to think about music.

On the multi-part Music for Piano (1952-56), Cage extended his chance procedures, basing the notation on tiny imperfections he found in a sheet of paper. Giancarlo Simonacci, in Volume 4 of his impressive, budget-priced survey of Cage’s piano music, seems closely attuned to the work’s blithe flow of random sound-events. However, he’s unfortunate in that Sabine Liebner, one of Europe’s leading Cage specialists, has recorded (for the Neos label) not only a magisterial account of Music for Piano, but also compelling versions of the four late Cage pieces that Simonacci has rather shoehorned onto the last disc of his 3CD set. And if her Music for Piano has only a slight edge over his, Liebner’s ASLSP (1985) in particular is an engrossing 65-minute tour de force, whereas Simonacci’s 25-minute take feels disappointingly skimpy. (ASLSP is a contraction of ‘as slow as possible’; there’s a performance of Cage’s later version for organ, currently underway in Germany, which is scheduled to last for 639 years.)

Liebner’s latest Cage release is the epic and austere Etudes Australes (1974-75), its notation derived from star maps. It’s one of Cage’s most deliberately complex works, his hope being that to see someone perform it might inspire people to attempt the similarly ‘impossible’ task of changing the world. Liebner’s version is more expansive and dynamically varied than the smooth, fluent benchmark recording by Grete Sultan, the work’s dedicatee, but it lasts more than an hour longer. This is a problem with a piece that even Cage admirers agree is tough listening; violinist Paul Zukofsky thought the Etudes ‘somewhat too didactic, too much the same over a very, very long period of time’, while critic John Rockwell declared that they ‘refine randomness to an almost celestially pure boredom’. Indeed. There are many chance works by Cage that I find utterly absorbing, but Etudes Australes continues to elude me, seemingly arid and interminable. Change the world? Sadly, I always plump for the easier option and change the record.

GRAHAM LOCK Read the full review on Agora Classica


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