John CAGE (1912-1992)
CD 1
Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano (early 1940s) [61:10]
The Perilous Night for prepared piano () [12:53]
CD 2
Bacchanale for prepared piano (1944) [6:56]
Robin Hartwell Piano Piece No. 2 after John Cage, Matthew Fairclough Inside Out Django Bates You Live and Learn, Stephen R Pratt Three Studies on Cage, Mike Wilson/Zoetrope ALF - The Vegan Gravy Mix, Peter O'Brien Rasavan, Deirdre Gribbin The Broken Piece of the Moon, Mary Black Dead sheep, Jonathan Harvey Homage to Cage, a Chopin (und Ligeti ist auch dabei), Andrew Toovey You may not (want) to (be) hear/here, Talvin Singh/Joanna MacGregor Endgame,
Conlon NANCARROW (1912-1997)
Prelude and Blues (1938) [3:35]
Three Canons for Ursula (1988) [15:09]
Studies for player piano: 3c, 6, 11 (late 1940s) [10:03]
Joanna MacGregor (prepared piano and piano)
rec. 1988-98, St Mary's Church, Hatfield Oak; St George's Brandon Hill, Bristol; Snake Ranch. DDD
WARNER CLASSICS 25646 78566-6 [73:40 + 72:10]

MacGregor has never been one to compromise. Her willingness to challenge through repertoire adventure is a byword. This disc corroborates that role.

The nineteen Sonatas and Interludes patter, rattle, click, resonate, mesmerise, clang and ring with all the elan, delicacy and plangent finery of the gamelan. These sounds emerge among the seductive whispers of temple and jungle. I say nineteen Sonatas and Interludes. In fact one track incorporates both sonatas 14 and 15 sharing the title Gemini. The wonder is that these results, which are intensely beautiful, are achieved by 'preparing' a concert grand with bits of bamboo, rubber, plastic, screws, nuts and bolts. The sheer labour that Cage must have put in to experimenting to achieve these sounds and then having meticulously to document the additions into the score is phenomenal. Cage's The Perilous Night is another example of West Coast USA openness. The note leads us to expect something darker than the Sonatas and Interludes but the mood difference is infinitesimal.

The second disc harbours music by Cage, Nancarrow and a tribute selection. The Cage piece - Bacchanale - is different from the pieces on CD 1. It throbs with a pounding electric charge coupling to faint Stravinskian overtones. It picks up on a generalised Japanese accent.

Robin Hartwell's Piano Piece No. 2 after John Cage is rather more violent and metallic than Cage though still fractured. Matthew Fairclough's Inside Out is slower and more contrived: electronic and apocalyptic. Django Bates' You Live and Learn superimposes a young girl talking with all sort of other sounds. The prepared piano makes more conventional piano noises than we are accustomed to from Cage. It's quite catchy and even charming in a disorientating sort of way. Stephen Pratt's Three Studies are just as non-linear as the other pieces but sound more Cage-like yet in a more muscular ‘plink-plunk’ way – sorry! Mike Wilson/Zoetrope's Vegan Gravy Mix whimpers and wheezes, bubbles and burbles. The piano playing uses jazzy figurations in small shards. It reminded me of a 1970s Blaxploitation film score. Peter O'Brien's Rasavan adds to the mix with warbling synthesiser and processed voice tracks. Deirdre Gribbin's The Broken Piece of the Moon also makes play with a voice-track which sounds like a call to prayer and lines it up with gamelan patterning and what sounds to me like the dropping of galvanised hollow-ware into a brick coal-house. Unaccountable. Mary Black's Dead sheep is just odd and very short. Jonathan Harvey's name I know. His Homage to Cage, a Chopin (und Ligeti ist auch dabei) is a bustling blizzard of metallic shimmers and rhetorical piano writing. It ends abruptly with a gesture Rachmaninov would have recognised. Andrew Toovey is another well kent name. You may not (want) to (be) hear/here has a man's voice reading a meaning-challenged set of words over drum impacts and a quiet gamelan patter. Endgame is a collegiate effort by Talvin Singh and Joanna MacGregor. The traditional instrumental world of the Indian subcontinent resonates with bells, piano strums and quiet gong sounds.

Conlon Nancarrow was born in Arkansas and made his home in Mexico. His reputation rests on the multiplicity of pieces he wrote for player-piano. The three items here are for unadulterated piano. They are under the sauntering and lolling spell of the blues or in the case of the Prelude indebted to a wayward martellato ragtime. The Three Canons for Ursula make play with a scatter of little unarticulated note impacts, emergent musings and rapid-fire Handelian scraps. The Ursula referred to is the pianist Ursula Oppens. The last three tracks comprise Studies 3c, 6 and 11. These swing and sway along, obsessive in their repetition of note-cells and national stereotypes and conventions - Spanish in the case of No. 6. The final study dots and pegs along but at last finds a sort of bitterly horror-struck acceleration.

Do not be put off by the Cage name and the avant-garde reputation. It does not matter - just relax and accept the music for what it is.

The candid and informative liner-notes are by Joanna MacGregor.

This is part of the revealing and interest-barbed Sound Circus series from Warner - MacGregor. These releases include her 2CD Gershwin (2564 67830-6), her Goldberg (2564 68393-3), MacGregor Live in Buenos Aires (2564 68475-9) and her four CD Messiaen collection including Harawi, Quatuor Pour la fin du Temps and Vingt Regards (2564 68393-2).

There are alternative versions of the Sonatas and Interludes including Henck (Wergo) and Tilbury (Explorer - the home of analogue tapes from the Decca Headline LP label) but none of them have this particular mix and the bargain price surely encourages experimentation.

Rob Barnett

MacGregor's playing an choice of repertoire is cuttingly barbed and honed with interest and allure.