Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

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Len Mullenger:

Seventy-Four for orchestra - Version 1 (1992) 12.11
The Seasons - Ballet in one act (1947) 16.35
Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra (1950/51) 20.39
Seventy-Four for orchestra - Version 2 12.03
Suite for Toy Piano (1948) 7.13
Suite for Toy Piano (orch Lou Harrison) 6.30
Margaret Leng Tan (piano)
American Composers Orchestra/Dennis Russell Davies
ECM NEW SERIES 1696 - 465 140-2 [75.11]


ECM turns in another plush but unglitzy production. Here is a serious company with no hang-ups about exploring the now un-trendy avant-garde.

Seventy-Four (in two versions for full orchestra) oscillates its loosely held tones: gently turning, mantric and baritonal. The Tibetan mysteries of his solo violin pieces are here writ larger and we are even treated to slow brass interjections. This music is surely an expression of his Buddhist beliefs. The work was composed to celebrate Cage's eightieth birthday. He died three weeks short of this landmark.

The Suite for Toy Piano is also in two versions - the first all viscous and gamelan-xylophonic; the second incongruously rich in Lou Harrison's accustomed lucid romanticism. Both versions are extremely approachable but the Harrison softens Cage's sharp edges.

Cage's The Seasons dates from midway between his Sonatas and Interludes and is positively luxuriant in disturbance, leafy with fragments, smithereened birdsong and layers of starry dust, cluttered with Stravinskian cells, clamorous and shady - not at all the music of the long-held stare of his final five years. Towards the close he lets the dazzling birdsong of Spring sing free and unthreatened. In close to the same way that Elliott Carter's Symphony No. 1 and Pocahontas (two works neatly recorded by Paul Dunkel druing the early 1980s) relate to his Starchild so The Seasons (a Merce Cunningham ballet) relates to Cage's mature wilderness works. It is still by no means easy stuff but it is far from forbidding. On Hearing the Last Cuckoo in Spring is surely Cage's unwitting model for the Summer movement. Fall is a gaunt challenge with a skeletal fist - all dissolving again into broken birdsong.

The Piano Concerto is riddled with broken clockwork - classically 'plunk-plink' - nothing links, like some tortoise-shambling chaos of a collage, timbrally variegated, a slow aleatoric maelstrom, arthritic and meandering blindly through three movements. The piano used by Cage is of course a 'prepared' instrument. The orchestra consists of 22 players: all the woodwind, brass, percussion, harp, piano, celesta and strings. Highest praise to the players but I found this too tough a challenge in terms of extracting musical meaning or satisfaction.

The notes are detailed and in three languages: German, French and English. The booklet is enhanced by contact sheet facsimiles of session shots.

A challenging, and for Cage, a positively exuberant collection. All those fascinated by Oriental Americana should explore this disc. The piano concerto is hard work - all texture and instant by instant dysjunct drama.


Rob Barnett


Rob Barnett

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