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John CAGE (1912-1992)
4’33" (five performances)
4’33" (orchestral transcription by Leopold Stokowski)*
Evgeny Kissin (piano)
* New York Philharmonic Orchestra/José Serebrier
rec. London in June 1997, Moscow in February 1998, Tokyo in September 1998, Berlin in May 2000, Vienna in June 2000 and *New York in June 2001
Picture format NTSC 4:3; Sound Format 0; Region Code 0; Disc Format DVD 9; subtitles in American, French, German, Russian and Esperanto
SONY CLASSICAL DVD 4334 3343-3 [33’00]

It must be very unusual to have six performances of the same work on one disc but I am sure the eccentric American composer John Cage would have approved. His work consisting of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of "silence" was premiered in 1952 by David Tudor who sat at the piano, opened and closed the lid, and timed the work by means of a stopwatch. Since then it has not featured often on concert programmes until adopted in the 1990s by Kissin as one of his signature pieces, perhaps a deliberate attempt to show that his artistry extends beyond large-scale romantic works.

It has to be said that the work lends itself more to DVD than CD for the artist’s opportunities for interpretation lie in the visuals. Kissin certainly strives to make each performance different. By going beyond opening and closing the lid he has brought a new performance tradition to this fascinating work. In all of the performances he moves stealthily (and, crucially, without making a sound) around the stage, apparently lost in wonder. But he varies the routine considerably, most strikingly in Vienna when he spends a least a minute peering into the bowels of the instrument – perhaps wondering what might have been inserted between the strings? It seems doubtful that Cage would have wanted this for his purpose here was to demonstrate the impossibility of silence and such movements could be considered distracting.

The Stokowski transcription is a first performance and therefore of great interest. It was his last work and only discovered well after his death in 1977. The orchestral size is the same as for his Bach transcriptions but with added tubas. Some may consider that this over-romanticises the purity of Cage's essentially classical conception but I enjoyed it immensely. With regard to the orchestra – who have to pass a large clock round every one of the players without making a sound in exactly 4’33" – this work brings as big a challenge to them as any of Ives’s more extreme utterances. The New York Philharmonic mostly manages it with aplomb (apart from one of the violas who almost dropped the clock) in what was apparently an encore after a stirring performance of Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto. Serebrier (a protégé of Stokowski) presides with authority – he starts off with the clock and at the very end it finally reaches Kissin just before the crowd goes wild.

The Berlin performance lasts for only 4’31" but this isn't an editing error. Some of the audience, following the score with stopwatches in hand, clearly felt short-changed and expressed their disapproval with a few boos. This was, perhaps, a little harsh considering that the playing time of 4'33" was not part of the original score, but merely an accident of the work's first performance.

In London – inevitably – someone coughs loudly at 4’02" – couldn’t they have waited just thirty seconds or so? The variety of audience reactions at the end is interesting – respectful silence broken eventually by polite applause in Vienna (effectively lengthening the work), and bravos in London, whilst in Tokyo Kissin was showered with mushrooms (apparently Cage was an avid mycologist).

Sensibly we are given the performances in chronological order and together they form a kind of suite. Sound quality should not really be a major issue here but don’t imagine that the engineers could take a tea-break before hurrying back to make sure the applause is properly balanced – it is crucial that they capture what silence there is and, in contrast to their usual approach, any unintended sounds that might occur. Camerawork is particularly important in this work and here one might be critical of the inter-cutting of camera angles during the performances since this arguably conflicts with the philosophical intentions of the work.

In keeping the spirit of the piece, there are no notes and the inside of the booklet is completely blank so that you can write them yourself during the performances.

Although when you are playing the disc it may seem to last for ever, 33 minutes is very short shrift for a DVD especially bearing in mind that rather more than 4 minutes is applause. To get round the problem Sony are offering "two for the price of one" – presumably so you can also amuse the kids with it if your car as has a DVD player. Whether their attention spans will stretch to 4’33" probably depends on how well you have brought them up.

Which of these performances might be considered a top choice? Well, the orchestral version is special but for everyday looking I choose the Tokyo version (where the silence really was golden), particularly for the mushrooms, a nice touch from an audience who know and love their Cage.

Patrick C Waller


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