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John CAGE (1912-1992)
Seven (1988) [20:00]
Quartets I-VIII (1976) [40:31]
Orchester Jakobsplatz München/Daniel Grossman
rec. 7 April 2007, Hubert-Burda-Saal, Jüdisches Zentrum, München (Seven); 5-6 May 2007, Goethe Forum Munich. DDD
NEOS 10720  [60:48] 
Experience Classicsonline

These are two pieces with two entirely different basic starting points, but each with their own freedoms and controls. Seven is framed like an oil painting – the exact boundaries are the number of musicians; seven, and the length of the piece – exactly 20 minutes. These would seem to be unlikely stipulations for what is essentially an improvisatory work, but the musicians play from 20 notated bars – their freedom lying in the moments at which they start or stop playing. In this way, the character of the music is guaranteed, even when each performance is a unique version of the work. This character is essentially meditative, with many long sustained notes, the character of the instruments dictating how these notes sound. In regard to this the piano has a powerful role, the attack and delay of the notes having a strong character against all of the others. Bowed percussion, winds and strings simultaneously exist within their own little worlds and contribute to the whole, from a double-bass which sometimes sounds like a subway train is passing, to the ringing sustain of a clarinet. The slow moving chorale which results has many moments of chance beauty, but the general feel is one of other-worldliness – a musical transport to realms where the imagination can run riot, if you are prepared to allow it so to do. 

Quartets I-VIII was written for the bicentennial of the U.S.A., and uses eight old American chorales which were fragmented by Cage and reformed into this piece using the Chinese I Ching as a guide to where each should be placed. The Quartets in the title refers to the way in which only four instruments of the 24 strong ensemble are playing at any one time. The exposed nature of the music allied to its clearly tonal basis make for a Mozartean challenge to performers. As Daniel Grossman says in his notes, “...the most difficult requirement is fitting the few notes to be played... such that meaningful phrases ultimately result.” In fact, this is a kind of Weberneque extension of Charles Ives’s irreverent treatment of traditional and venerable old American musics, and the shadow of Copland is never all that far away either – you wouldn’t be entirely surprised if “Tis a Gift to be Simple” were suddenly to break through. By the way, these early American pieces are also known as ‘shape note hymns’, so called because the notes were given different shapes related to the “fa so la” scale as well as being conventionally placed on the stave, so that everyone could join in. Each movement of Quartets has a similar, slow evolution, though some, as with numbers V and the lively VI, can be very short indeed. As with Seven, the moments of euphonic beauty have a chance feel to them, but with plenty of consonant intervals and almost recognisable melodic shapes around Quartets always has a feel of ongoing, tantalisingly irresolvable cadence.

This SACD recording is very good and has a superb sense of depth, but brings the musicians in very close – I certainly had more the feeling that I was sitting amongst the players rather than as an audience. This has its benefits, but made the experience as much analytical journey as one which can be witnessed and enjoyed from a respectful distance. The fairly dry acoustics of each venue also contribute to this close feel. The playing is very good – sensitive to Cage’s idiom, and usually full of life and expression even under the ‘difficult’ conditions of the bare-bones style of the music. The oboe has a bit of a problem making a nice tone from out of nowhere sometimes in Quartets, but I sympathise – it must be hell getting a double reed to behave under such sparse conditions.

There seem to be very few if any recordings of either of these works around, so this release is a very welcome addition to the catalogue. My only niggle is the inherent contradiction in putting this music on CD at all. Daniel Grossman says “the objective of making every performance unique was one of John Cage’s central principles”, but every time you play the recording you just get the same one version, each time, over and over...

Dominy Clements


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