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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



John CAGE (1912 – 1992)
Etudes Australes (1976)
Steffen Schleiermacher (piano)
Recorded: Fürstliche Reitbahn, Bad Arolsen, December 2001
DABRINGHAUS & GRIMM MDG 613 0795-2 [3CDs: 63:08 + 69:03 + 71:49]


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It seemed to me a little strange that an older woman should busy herself with sticks and strike the piano. So I said to Grete [Sultan] that I would write a couple of pieces for her... (John Cage)

The result of this was Etudes Australes completed in 1976 and playing for over three hours!

Etudes Australes, in four books of eight études each, is thus a large-scale, ambitious and – no doubt – demanding achievement. Cage based the cycle on star charts of the Southern Hemisphere, hence the title. (There also exists another set titled Etudes Boréales.) He placed transparent paper over the charts and elaborated them according to certain operations derived from various sources such as the I-Ching. From this, Cage and Grete Sultan worked out the chords that can be played within the range of a ninth (i.e. for Sultan’s hands). The Etudes form a process of densification: an increasing number of chords appear from piece to piece, and single tones become rarer and rarer. (I owe these and other explanations to Schleiermacher’s excellent and detailed notes.) Formally, the set of Etudes Australes is designed as a duet for two independent hands; and, as a result, two staves are assigned to each hand. Pitches are fully notated, but without any durations or dynamics. No tempo is prescribed though Cage nevertheless requires a uniform tempo for each piece. The score also indicates some proportional distances, and a clear difference is made between open note heads and closed note heads : "open notes" are to be held until just the second following note in the same hand, whereas "closed notes" are to be played briefly. Thus, the player has to make a number of decisions before ever playing a single note, according to a number of parameters and to the level of density or complexity of each étude. As Schleiermacher rightly observes, "it is tempting to play the somewhat less concentrated pieces at a fast tempo and to play the complicated ones at a very slow tempo." The player may also choose to play the whole set fortissimo throughout so that it eventually sounds as a gigantic monolith. He may also prefer a more varied approach to each piece.

Considering all this, it is clear that Etudes Australes allows for some considerable freedom on the player’s part. The set is also fiendishly difficult and demanding, sometimes on the verge of unplayability, and taxing the player’s physical strength and resistance, as well as (and most importantly, I think) the player’s re-creative imagination. Steffen Schleiermacher, who is also a composer, clearly possesses all these qualities, and his dedicated readings are obviously carefully prepared and fully committed. His remarkable qualities are never in doubt, though I for one could not help but feel a certain monotony, probably partly due to his deliberate choice of dynamics. This release, though, will undoubtedly appeal to all Cage fans who will warmly welcome this new recording of one of Cage’s most ambitious and important works.

Hubert Culot


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