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CD: Crotchet

John CAGE (1912-1992)
Credo in USa (1942) [16:11]
Imaginary Landscape No. 1b (1939) [7:31]
Concert for Piano and Orchestrac (1957/58) with Solo for Voice No. 1c (1958) and Solo for Voice No. 2c (1960); Rozart Mixd (1965) [4:31]
Suite for Toy Pianoe (1948) [11:58]
Music for Carillonf (1952/1954) [9:53].
aBurkhard Wissemann, abMichael Dietz (percussion); abChristoph Keller, cHermann Danauser (pianos); Johann-Nikolaus Matthes (aphonograph, aradio, bturntables); cBell Imrock, cDoris Sandrock (voices); cdEnsemble Musica Negativa/Rainer Riehn; efGentle Fire.
rec. a-dCologne, July 1971, eAbbey Road Studios, London, 11-12 May 1973, fLoughborough Carillon, Leicestershire, 6 October 1973. ADD
Experience Classicsonline

This is a spectacularly well-planned disc, revealing various facets of the enigma/inventor - the latter Schoenberg’s term - that was John Cage. We hear works whose sounded surface is generated by indeterminacy, chaotic juxtapositions and a catalogue of gorgeous sounds. These include some gorgeous silences created by the music that surrounds them. Although recording dates are 1971 and 1973, the transfers are immaculate - played blind, I would defy anyone to place them in that era such is the clarity on offer. The recorded order works perfectly for straight play-through. 

The first of many disorientating things on this disc is the opening of Credo in US - which actually starts with the beginning of the finale of Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony in an uncredited performance which zooms in and out of focus while effectively determining the progress of the Cage piece - as the Dvořák ends, so does the Cage. The 1971 recording is astonishing in its presence and its stereo separation and effects. Credo in US was the earliest piece Cage wrote for his partner in the mid-1940s, the choreographer Merce Cunningham. Dvořák’s music intertwines with, is subverted by and complements Cage’s in the most spellbinding way. Snippets from radio plays are juxtaposed with block piano chords; jazz suddenly appears - just after twelve minutes - pure and unannounced. The performance and recording are beyond reproach. There are other performances available (Col Legno and Wergo) and they will complement this one perfectly. But at the price point, this is unbeatable.

The Imaginary Landscape No. 1 dates from only three years earlier and is scored for pre-recorded sounds again, but this time from frequency test discs played on variable-speed turntables. I agree entirely with the booklet note annotator, Martin Cotton, that the “unearthly swooping and repetitive phrases, over a stately rhythmic pulse, give the piece a strangely processional, ritualistic character” . Spot-on. The actual sounds are often like - for those old enough to remember - “The Clangers” , just with a little more timbral body.

Cage enjoyed experimenting with indeterminacy in the 1950s, and on top of that he also enjoyed allowing the performance of some of his pieces literally on top of others. Both are involved in this recording of the scoreless Concert for Piano and Orchestra. There are parts, but no score. Soloist and each instrumentalist all have parts, randomly generated by chance processes, and the pages can be delivered in any order. Here the Concert is juxtaposed with the two Solos for voice (also chance pieces). The result is truly spellbinding in its randomness. Remember, randomness itself poses an interpretative dilemma to the performers and asks them to react to their peers in real time. It is here that the musicianship of the performers is drawn on, and this performance is as compelling as any you are likely to encounter. The voice pieces are superbly “sung” by Bell Imhoff and Doris Sandrock; they really do take on a shape, too, with climaxes and plateaux.

Rozart Mix takes longer to explain than it does to listen to - at least in this performance. The “score” is actually correspondence between Cage and Alvin Lucier for the preparation of the first performance. It is scored for “at least four performers with at least 12 tape recorders and at least 88 tape-loops” , loops that can comprise speech and/or music. The piece, in theory, begins with the entrance of the first audience member and ends with the exit of the last. At the premiere, it was about two hours long; here, it is a mere 4½ minutes. But what a fascinating, beautiful 4½ minutes they are. The music here is slow and contemplative, the perfect chill-out - if I may use that horribly modern phrase - after the Concert

The gorgeous sonorities of the Suite for Toy Piano make a powerful effect - but who is the performer? It is bracketed with the Music for Carillon in the booklet - hence the superscripting in the title - but is clearly not for the same instruments and has a completely different recording date. Moreover, the booklet notes make mention of the Suite before implying that the piece on the disc is actually the 1960 Music for Amplified Toy Pianos. Whoever and whatever it is, it is beautifully played, making telling use of the gaps between the notes. Timbrally, it sounds too diverse to be played just on a single toy piano, even an extensively prepared one..

Finally, Music for Carillon, a set of three pieces. The score of No. 1 consists of a sequence of rectangles with dots in them, indicating pitch on the vertical and time on the horizontal. The second piece is similarly constructed, but with Cage using cardboard with holes punched into it; the third is the same as the second, but with the cardboard turned upside down. The music is actually supremely beautiful and here the recording quality really stands out.

A sure-fire winner. Just a pity EMI could not get their documentation straight.

Colin Clarke 


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