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JOHN CAGE (1912-1992) Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano (1946-48)  Boris Berman (piano) NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.559042 [63:36]

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The piano is prepared …. but are we?

Mention the name of John Cage to most people even faintly 'in the know' and the security shutters roll down. He, together with Stockhausen, Luigi Nono and Bussotti, were the high priests of the avant-garde during the 1960s. When, at long last, the 1970s signalled a return to a new accessibility his music and that of many others began to take up the cellar and loft space previously occupied by the music of Bax, Moeran, Piston and a host of other fine tunesmiths.

Nowadays a much more catholic public is able, through the secure medium of the CD (and no doubt other carriers in due course),to enjoy a very much wider range of material while the record magazines (with the honourable exception of Fanfare), radio stations and concert promoters become increasingly narrow - mainstream classics, celebrity splurges, trendy commissions and little else.

Now we can listen to Cage with a less prejudiced ear. What can he offer to the adventurer? The style of these works is not that prickly. Much here is extremely beautiful although the emphasis is on patterns of notes and silence rather than melody. There are in fact sixteen sonatas and four interludes. I will stand back from comment on individual tracks. The work seems to have a reflective calmness as its axis. Much of the music is quiet - crepuscular - suggesting ancient starry nights. Lights glint and a chilly glow fades and comes again. The influence of gamelan seems obvious. I wonder if gamelan ensembles were touring the States during the early 1940s? Anyone who has heard the 78s of Britten and Colin McPhee playing the Gamelan Anklung (Balinese Ceremonial Music) or knows the Britten ballet Prince of the Pagodas will have some inkling of what to expect. The oriental element here is not fake Chinoiserie (nothing of Ketèlbey or any one of hundreds of purveyors) but conveys to this listener a mesmerised and mesmeric absorption in mantras and time-suspending music. A similar approach was adopted by Stockhausen in his Hymnus. Also it is not a far step onwards from Cage to the minimalism of Steve Reich (Variations for orchestra) and Philip Glass. The music has the wayward charm of an aleatory music box out of control (no doubt some tautology there!).

If you enjoy the minimalists then do try this disc. If you have already come across the entrancing prepared pianola music of Conlon Nancarrow (now there's a project for you Naxos) try this. John Foulds' Essays in the Modes and his orchestra; Three Mantras from Avatara also have some spiritual kinship with this music.

As for the piano's preparation this is specified in the score and with some precision: screws, bolts, bits of plastic and even a specific make of india-rubber are all inserted at specific locations amongst the piano's strings. The effect is one of Ariel-like witchery: Prospero's Island in deed.

Berman is a pianist I associated with the grand romantic manner. His sequence of recordings from the 1970s and 1980s often centred on Rachmaninov. I was not expecting him to weigh in on Cage's behalf.

David Revill's notes agreeably complete a package that would be fine at any price but is commanding at this level.

Do not be put off by other people's prejudices. You will be surprised by the whispered ice-crystal beauty of this music written in the stultifying atmosphere of 1940s post-war USA. A very strong contender indeed and made all the more significant by having Berman at the helm. There are no competitors at this superbargain price range and very few at any price. I recall hearing Roger Woodward's Headline Decca LP many years ago and there may be a Wergo CD available but I would doubt that you will better Berman and Naxos's cleanly engaging recording.


Rob Barnett


Rob Barnett

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