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John CAGE (1912-1992)
Sonatas & Interludes for prepared piano (1946-1948): Sonatas I-IV; First Interlude; Sonatas V-VIII; Second Interlude; Third Interlude; Sonatas IX-XII; Fourth Interlude; Sonatas XIII-XVI
John Tilbury (prepared piano)
rec. All Saint’s, Petersham, December 1974. ADD
EXPLORE EXP0004 [62:45]


It’s not as if we are short of recent recordings of Cage’s Sonatas & Interludes for prepared piano. Against this background you might be asking yourself the wisdom of hauling out a version over thirty years of vintage. To start with, the recording certainly doesn’t show its age. There is virtually no tape hiss, and with the wealth of detail and range of dynamics I would bet there are few who would even guess this was an analogue recording.

For those of you who are intrigued but uninitiated into the world of the prepared piano, the strings of the instrument are variously treated by having bolts, rubber bungs, screws and other objects shoved between them, something which always has piano technicians in fits. The instrument is then played conventionally, but the results – surprisingly – are often incredibly beautiful, invariably strange and fascinating, often reminding one of exotic Eastern instruments like gamelans, bells and gongs.

This piece is, literally, all about preparation. Cage provides a diagram – reproduced in the booklet – which maps to minute measurements the positions at which each object should be placed. Pianos vary enormously in size and proportion however, and John Tilbury describes his sensible, intuitive approach in the booklet notes: ‘if I can produce a better sound at 2⅓ inches rather than 2⅞ inches, it is unlikely Cage and I will fall out over (a fraction of) an inch. So I dispense with the ruler and rely primarily on the ear and my own taste.’ Despite Cage’s ‘chance music’ approach he was in fact highly specific in the way his pieces should be prepared and performed. When he heard what a bunch of us students at The Hague Conservatoire had made of one of his aleatoric works he summed up our attempt (this was in 1988) with a gentle but emphatic phrase which will live with me to my grave: ‘You’re doing it all wrong!’

All of that sense of Eastern tradition and mystic philosophy is atmospherically reproduced in Tilbury’s performance. The central tenet of tranquillity is never entirely absent, even when the notes are flying in all directions. In this way, the ‘jazzy’ moments are more often than not restrained and understated, although all of the rhythmic touch and feel are present. These pieces are in some way like J.S. Bach’s Preludes and Fugues – there is never likely to be only one version which answers all of the questions which such a fascinating and complex cycle of work produces. My usual reference with these pieces has been Gérard Frémy on the Etcetera label, but I have a feeling I might have lent this disc to someone years ago – never to be seen again. Comparing like with like, at least in terms of approximate price, I managed to find my copy of Boris Berman’s 1998 recording on Naxos (8.554345) and found myself becoming equally involved in both performances. Even with widely varying timbre and tempi, there isn’t so much a feeling of right or wrong in either reading. You might prefer Tilbury’s fleeting, dancing and secretive Sonata II, but find the springy bass note sound more fascinating with Berman in Sonata III, as opposed to Tilbury, whose strings rattle rather more like a spoon in a teacup. Berman’s remarkable palette in the First Interlude rings, knocks and resonates in fascinating patterns, but you might prefer Tilbury’s subtle fantasy in Sonata V, where Berman has some sticky-out notes, and a heavier, more stubbornly stable rhythmic pulse.

In general it is Berman who sounds as if he’s having more fun with the music, Tilbury who has the more serious, spiritual approach. Both of these, or any of the other versions you might find, offer their own perspective on these endlessly fascinating pieces, but why spend a fortune when you can get such joys for so little.

Cage was a massively influential thinker and composer, and in these works you can, for instance, find out where Arvo Pärt found the germ of his piano motif for ‘Tabula Rasa’ (Sonata VI). You may have to suspend your expectations when it comes to piano recitals, but an open and receptive mind will find almost infinite marvels in these works. You could do far worse than start this journey of discovery with John Tilbury’s excellent recording, and you certainly won’t regret adding his interpretation to your collection if you seek an alternative reading to a version in your own collection.

Dominy Clements


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