John CAGE (1912-1992)
Piano Music Volume 4
CD 1
Music for piano 1 (1952) [4:12]
Music for piano 2 (1953) [5:40]
Music for piano 3 (1953) [1:35]
Music for piano 4-19 (1953) [19:25]
Music for piano 20 (1953) [2:25]
Music for piano 21-36 (1955) [32:25]
CD 2
Music for piano 37-52 (1955) [22:20]
Music for piano 53-68 (1956) [18:25]
Music for piano 69-84 (1956) [18:15]
CD 3
ASLSP for piano (1985) [21:05]
I. [2:40]
II. [2:24]
III. [2:24]
VII. (as 4th piece) [3:14]
V. [3:19]
VI. [2:14]
VII. [3:09]
VIII. [2:40]
ONE for piano (1987) [10:05]
ONE2 for 1-4 pianos (1989) [25:55]
ONE5 for piano (1990) [20:00]
Giancarlo Simonacci (piano)
rec. 28 November - 1 December 2011 Fazioli Hall, Sacile, Italy DDD
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 9263 [3 CDs: 65:42 + 59:00 + 77:05]

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 available.
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 of discipline".
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.
Mark Sealey

An excellent, persuasive and technically brilliant set of performances of some of Cage's most important piano works. Should be snapped up immediately by anyone even remotely interested in contemporary music for its depth and beauty remain as relevant now as when Cage composed the wide variety of pieces on this three-CD set.