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 (www.fylkingen.se 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,
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.