John Cage, who died 20 years ago this year, remains one of the
most poorly understood of modern composers. Like many of his
contemporaries (and near contemporaries), he was also a profound,
original and influential thinker.
Giancarlo Simonacci, who is recording all of Cage's piano music,
plays the two dozen or so works on these three CDs with such
sensitivity, such care and yet such confidence that we seem
to be sitting at Cage's shoulder as he offers us then refines
his ideas, sounds and musical messages as they develop…
listen to the slow pace at which Simonacci takes the last five
minutes of Music for piano 1 (from 1952) [CD.1 tr.1],
for instance. Every nuance, every fleck of colour, every mini-second
of anticipation, tension, attack and pause - even Cage's wry
self-references - is brought out lovingly and with the expectation
that we'll understand and appreciate them.
Simonacci is an accomplished pianist, if not a well known one.
Amongst his achievements are also composition and the professorship
of piano at the Conservatory of Santa Cecilia in Rome. For someone
with a small current discography, this volume (and presumably
the others in the series: they seem, though, to be unavailable
at the moment) is a real achievement. He makes the music - the
earliest of which was written 60 years ago - sound eminently
contemporary. The fragmentation, the bending towards clear musical
goals, the sense of overall structure, architecture and specific
sound 'outcomes' (contradiction, surprise, affirmation, surprise,
delight etc), the marrying of apparent experiment and uncertainty
with the need to sustain interest over lengthy periods of time.
These are not easy. There are few other recordings of this music
Nor is Simonacci afraid really to stretch the music out to the
fullest lengths: listen to the meticulous yet highly communicative
way in which he works through the ONE series. Some of
the pauses are long. Very long. But he never panics. Lets the
music breathe and make the impacts it wants to.
Above all, Simonacci understands the essentially pianistic nature
of this music of Cage's. Its melodies are restrained, its sounds
individual, its scope clear and contained. At the same time,
for instance, ASLSP for piano (which was written in 1985
and lasts just over 20 minutes) goes some way towards re-introducing
harmony, though in typical Cagean manner by expecting any notes
to sound with any others. Throughout the other pieces, the actual
sounds produced are (this is Cage) many, varied, intriguing
and stimulating. Though on these recordings the bulk of the
music is close to 'conventional' in that the piano is un-'prepared'.
Simonacci successfully keeps our interest through works where
the static, the melodic and the nature of sound itself are privileged
over harmony - the impressive and far from monolithic last two
dozen or so numbers of the monumental Music for Piano
on the second CD, for instance. At the same time, drama comes
from other quarters - chiefly rhythm. Interest also originates
and is expressed in comparisons and references within works;
not (necessarily) from tonal antithesis and synthesis. True
Expressionism. Simonacci thoroughly understands this - and is
able to communicate it to us without at the same time feeling
he has to emphasise, apologise for, disguise or otherwise allude
specifically to Cage's perceived idiosyncrasies. Ironically,
the composer might not have minded if he had!
Simonacci's facility with the idiom is fortunate: as is well
known, much is left to the performer's discretion (as well as
to chance). The performer's role is not a passive one. Yet neither
is it ostentatiously virtuosic. In short, Simonacci plays with
both grace and drive. These enhance and illuminate Cage's intentions.
Despite thorough and total involvement in what Cage wants to
happen at every moment throughout the pieces, Simonacci retains
a distance and detachment which elevate his communication: as
a minimum, our attention not once lapses; more significantly,
we anticipate what's coming next with pleasure.
The other attribute of Cage's piano music is the consistency
of its beauty. Most of the music here is on the slow side: delicate,
reflective, intimate yet not self-regarding; it's gentle but
strong; and finely crafted like filigree without tending to
the baroque or overly intricate. It requires real perception
both to let each piece work as it has to; and at the same time
situate it in the whole. This is one thing which makes a collection
such as the Music for Piano with no fewer than 84 pieces
so compelling. Simonacci is also obviously very clear about
how these works fit both into Cage's œvre as a whole; and
into other developments in the latter art of the last century.
He plays, almost, as one might play a set of variations by earlier
composers. Coherence is key.
This excellent recording also shows how Cage's conception of
what was possible - and desirable - in piano music changed over
the nearly 40 year span which these compositions represent.
All of those pieces recorded here were written between 1952
and 1990. The role of chance is important, so is the relationship
between ultra-pianistic music and other sounds, so are allusions
to art and literature and the extent to which dynamics are to
be included - or not. Simonacci seems also quietly at pains
to demonstrate just how varied the piano works of Cage are.
And not merely because he was experimenting and changing his
own conception of what Expressionism means.
Some of these pieces rely on preparation of the piano - particularly
in the earlier works such as Music for Piano. Simonacci
explains how he tackled this in the excellent, informative and
clearly written booklet that comes with these CDs. Amongst other
aspects of Cage's development which Simonacci explores in ASLSP
is the former's indebtedness to Schoenberg, about which he was
certainly ambivalent… sustaining notes so as to accentuate
harmonics (over rhythm, at least), for example. Similarly the
pieces called ONE challenge conventional attitudes both
to choosing scores and preparing sounds. Simonacci's ownership
of both these is intelligent an informed: it is the pianist's
music. But it definitely remains Cage's.
The short essay which Simonacci wrote provides illuminating
insights into how he chose to approach the pretty formidable
task, it has to be said, of really understanding Cage's world,
intentions and the results. He certainly didn't stint. If his
achievement could be summed up in one phrase, it's the one quoted
in that essay… "Everything is free within the rigour
The recording is close; the acoustic resonant and helpful. If
you have even a passing interest in contemporary ('avant-garde',
even) music, then this important repertoire will be of real
interest. That such an obviously competent and insightful a
pianist as Giancarlo Simonacci has made this compelling set
of recordings is a boon. And should be taken advantage of -
especially at the usual low price offered by Brilliant.