John CAGE (1912-1992)
Sonatas & Interludes for prepared piano (1946-1948) [64:00]
Sonatas I-IV; First Interlude; Sonatas V-VIII;
Second Interlude; Third Interlude; Sonatas IX-XII;
Fourth Interlude; Sonatas XIII-XVI
Cédric Pescia (prepared piano)
rec. 7-8 October 2011, Saal 3, Funkhaus Berlin Nalepastrasse
AEON AECD 1227 [64:00]
Some of John Cage’s most durable and popular music, the Sonatas & Interludes have already appeared in recordings including that of John Tilbury from 1974 and re-released on the Explore label, Boris Berman from Naxos, Joanna MacGregor and many others. This Aeon disc is one of those marking the hundredth anniversary of Cage’s birth in 1912. We’ve come across Cédric Pescia playing Schumann and, though he’s not one of those pianists who have a wide reputation for performing contemporary repertoire this is part of the secret of approaching Cage’s transformation of the conventional concert grand piano into a playground of exotic timbres. Using relatively straightforward musical means, Cage added bolts, clips and other materials to the piano strings in order to change their sound, emphasising percussiveness, or creating sounds which can be likened to gamelans, bells, marimbas - you name it, if ever there the word ‘orchestral’ could be applied to the piano in terms of results, the Sonatas & Interludes have been front runners for more than half a century.
Pescia’s take on this music is full of refinement and a highly musical, almost ‘classical’ observation of the written score. His opening chords of Sonata I are a less dramatic statement when compared to Boris Berman, taken in stately and legato fashion, and lacking those extremes of staccato and accentuation - designed to create a kind of third-pedal echo. Berman is full of subtlety, and the only real gain with the Aeon is a drier but closer recording, in through which some of the more intimate subtleties of the sounds are revealed. This is arguably a rather artificial approach, but it is good to have a piano-side seat for this music. I was expecting Berman to be the one tending towards greater eloquence in his interpretations but it is Pescia who provides greater superficial excitement, however missing some of the subtleties of the music and on occasion lacking the kind of definition we know is possible. Take the Sonata VI, which Pescia takes at high speed, the left hand ostinato an urgent chase rather than the swinging and syncopated number we know and love from Berman. You can get away with this speed, but this is a little too much of a headlong gallop, and those little fanfare elements which break up the piece are also rather glossed over. The following Sonata VII has that magical rising gesture which no doubt inspired Arvo Pärt in the Silentium part of his Tabula Rasa. Pescia’s piano preparation is rather vague in this instance, beautifully soft and transparent, but hard to track in terms of melodic shaping. There also seem to be notes missing, with some of the ‘second part’ lines or harmonies lacking.
This is a symptom of the main problem with this recording. We’ve become used to pianists able to put their trust in Cage’s sprinkling of transformational magic, digging deep to bring out the multitude of colours, surprises and dramatic shocks his score is able to conjure. Alas with Cédric Pescia we have a version which is so concerned with finesse and the seeking of a kind of interpretative poetry that we lose too much of the essence of the actual pieces. Pescia’s recording is full of beautiful things, is gorgeously recorded and is certainly not without merit, but in lacking what I can only term ‘definition’, the ultimate effect is rather flat.
There are always going to be differences between recordings of the Sonatas & Interludes with so many variable factors involved, between the nature of the piano and the micro-millimetre variations in placement of your objects for its ‘preparation’. One can also expect to have to defend that gap between expectation and freshness of experience when criticising any new recording of such pieces, and if you want to find out what I mean there is nothing for it but to explore and compare for yourself.
If you want to hear how these pieces really should sound and find out why they are so endlessly fascinating and popular, you could do worse than track down Julie Steinberg’s recording for the Music and Arts Programs of America label, CD-4937. Her powerful and multi-faceted performance results in music which can be so beautiful that it brings tears to the eyes. How about that oh-so-simple Sonata XIV, the first of the Gemini pair toward the end of the cycle, which carries a melody of very few notes which seem to have fallen from the heavens. I listen to Pescia and have to ask myself where this melody has gone. The final Sonata XVI can seem like a release in the form of a tortured chorale, the ghosts of Bach and Hindemith playing argumentatively with a heavily built celestial music box. Elegant and elegiac as he is, Pescia’s reluctance to hit the music with any kind of really dramatic theatricality leaves one high and dry: neither raised to a higher plane or brought to one’s knees and bowed by the Wayne’s World sentiment, “we’re not worthy”.
Cage-lite: beauty in abundance but, in the end, no cigar.