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John CAGE (1912-1992)
Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (1946-1948).
Yuji Takahashi (prepared piano).
Rec at Italian Institute, Stockholm on July 26th-27th, 1965. Mono [ADD]

John CAGE (1912-1992)
Complete Piano Music, Volume 1: The Prepared Piano, 1941-1952.
CD 1 [53'49]: Bacchanale (1940) [7'54]. Totem Ancestor (1942) [2'06]. And The Earth Shall Bear Again (1942) [3'16]. Primitive (1942) [4'03]. In the Name of the Holocaust (1942) [6'15]. Our Spring will come (1943) [4'34]. A Room (1943) [2'26]. Tossed as it is Untroubled (1943) [2'36]. The Perilous Night (1943/44) [13'23]. Root of an Unfocus (1944) [5'01].
CD2 [52'07] The Unavailable Memory Of (1944) [2'11]. Spontaneous Earth (1944) [3'05]. Triple Paced (1944) [2'26]. A Valentine Out OF Season (1944) [3'37]. Prelude for Meditation (1944) [1'10]. Mysterious Adventure (1945) [8'57]. Daughters of teh Lonesome Isle (1945) [9'24]. Music for Marcel Duchamp (1947) [5'45]. Two Pastorales (1952) [13'29].
CD3 [65'22]: Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (1946-1948).
Steffen Schleiermacher (prepared piano).
Rec Fürstliche Reitbahn, Bad Arolsen on December 6th-8th, 1996.
[3CD: 171'18]

Volume 1 of Schleiermacher's survey includes one of Cage's most famous pieces, the 'Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano'. It is fortuitous for the purposes of this review that Yuji Takahashi's mono 1965 recording has recently been reissued on the Swedish Fylkingen Records ( distributed in the UK by DIscovery Records). The timings of Schleiermacher and Takahashi are substantially different: 65'22 and 58'30, respectively. Both accounts have been recorded closely, with Schleiermacher more resonantly than Takahashi. Also, both interpreters have a very individual 'take' on the work. There seems to be more of a sense of discovery from Takahashi, who in the final analysis wins my vote: but it is a close-run race. I would suggest that any serious Cageian should own both.

It is almost as if Schleiermacher is feeling his way in to this piece. The first four Sonatas (i.e. up to the first Interlude) all cede in some way to Takahashi. In the First, Schleiermacher, despite making the Balinese influences more explicit, has less momentum and is less interesting where Takahashi is bold and uses a wider variety of sounds. In the Second Sonata, Takahashi is fragility personified, making use of a lovely, delicate, silvery top. He even seems to make the ending reminiscent of the French Impressionists. Schleiermacher, by contrast, is hampered by an almost bath-tub acoustic. Takahashi is mesmeric in the Third, almost processional; Schleiermacher has less ongoing momentum and as such emerges as more diffuse. For the Fourth, Takahashi deliberately makes the listener lose orientation and uses the silences to gripping effect. Schleiermacher's faster pace (1'56 as opposed to 2'38) causes him to lose Takahashi's tension.

The First Interlude, curiously, seems to herald a change in Schleiermacher. Less overtly jazzy than Takahashi, it emerges as more Cageian and certainly breathes more confidence.

The Fifth and Sixth Sonatas demonstrate how the two players' approaches can in fact be equally valid. In the Fifth Sonata, Takahashi plays the left hand part manic and obsessive (it sounds like so many pitched bongos!). Schleiermacher is more sober, pointing more towards minimalism and in so doing generates a more cumulative effect. Takahashi is disembodied and fragmentary in the Sixth; Schleiermacher is more evocative, preferring to emphasise beauty of sound for its own sake (it is nearly a minute longer: 2'34 as against Takahashi's 1'41). Takahashi's Seventh Sonata uses a lovely variety of sounds, clearly separated in emotional intent; Schleiermacher is more cumbersome, less vitally alive (2'13; Takahashi is 1'48). Both bring out the echt-Cageian use of silence in Sonata No. 8, Takahashi particularly memorable for his ending (like a music-box winding down), Schleiermacher memorable for a gong-like lower register and supremely even tremolandi. There is a big difference in timings between the two in the Second Interlude: Takahashi 3'27; Schleiermacher 4'38. Takahashi is very percussive, but delicate, whereas Schleiermacher suffers once more from his booming acoustic. The difference between the Balinesque lower register and the Debussian top in Schleiermacher's recording is interesting, but this almost sounds like a practice speed. The Third Interlude follows immediately: Takahashi is dry here; Schleiermacher, just seconds faster (2'47; 2'49) is almost violent and certainly unrelenting. The latter's insistence wins out for this listener here.

Again in the Ninth Sonata, Takahashi is more Impressionistic, more delicate and the 'booming' sounds are like a submerged gong. Schleiermacher is more martellato at the opening and the low sounds are very ominous but not at all gong-like.

Takahashi stays closer to Cage's sound world in No. 10 (big contrasts between the dramatic opening gesture and the later delicacy whereas Schleiermacher seems more rooted in the world of the modern concert grand, albeit an altered one). Once more the Eleventh Sonata draws different responses from the text: Takahashi is quasi-dancing; Schleiermacher is hazy and mysterious.

Takahashi comes into his own from around here onwards. The Twelfth Sonata is undeniably Oriental in Takahashi's hands and I like the etude-like treatment of the later stages. In the Fourth Interlude, Takahashi is dancing and delicate (where Schleiermacher is more hammered). Takahashi is more music-box-like in the Sonata No. 13 and more hypnotically misty in the 14th and 15th Sonatas (which he bands together). Whereas Schleiermacher is over-resonant and, more importantly, less spiritual in the 16th, Takahashi is processional and almost Copland-like.

Ideally, one should aim to own both of these discs. In the final analysis, the sense of discovery Takahashi projects wins out, but of course Schleiermacher's set includes two other discs of Cage's music. The first of these features works written between 1940 and 1944, all of which have something to offer. The 'Bacchanale' (1940) invokes Bartók's 'Allegro barbaro'. It asks for a simply prepared piano and all notes used are prepared in one way or another. Schleiermacher projects a lovely sense of underlying rhythm.

There is a primordial, ritualistic feel to some of the music, and an undeniably obsessive element to much of it. The ostinati of 'Totem Ancestor' and the more violently rhythmic 'And the Earth Shall Bear Again' (both 1942), both dance offshoots of Cage's collaboration with Merce Cunningham, bear witness to tis (as does 'The Unavailable Memory Of', 1944). Almost all of Cage's pieces for prepared piano were intended for dance performances, in fact, on the practical grounds that a bag of screws, nuts, erasers and pieces of wood is more mobile than an entire percussion ensemble. But Cage provides much variety, from the exciting, bongo-like rhythms of 'Our Spring Will Come' (1943) and the uniform pulse of 'Totem Ancestor' (1943) to the flowing 'A Room' (1943) and the mesmeric 'Root of an Unfocus' (1944: 'Unfocus' is a photographic term referring to a blur). The latter piece is, Cage said, about fear.

'This Perilous Night' (1943/4) is fairly extended (13'23) and unusual for works from this period by being multi-movement (six in total). It draws on an Irish saga that Cage may well have learned about from Joseph Campbell. As always, Schleiermacher excels in the rhythmically vital movements and also shows his ability to lay bare the hypnotic side of other movements. Schleiermacher's accounts of all these pieces can only be described as kaleidoscopic in range. 'Triple Paced' (1944) comprises quite remarkable sounds, invoking a plucked electric guitar; 'Mysterious Adventure' (1945) is rhythmically alive with ever-changing shifts in its repetitions. The delicate 'Daughters of the Lonesome Isle' (1945) is particularly notable for its delicate, xylophone-like passages.

The two pieces which end Disc Two are slightly set off from the others. 'Music for Marcel Duchamp' of 1947 is more overtly Satie-influenced; the 'Two Pastorales' of 1952 are more closely related to the aesthetics of ‘Music of Changes' (see review of Schleiermacher's performance: Volume 3 in this series, MDG613 0785-2).

Schleiermacher's set, then, contextualises and confirms the importance of the 'Sonatas and Interludes'. The shorter first two discs provide a gripping, consistently varied but always Cageian landscape.

Colin Clarke

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