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July 2022

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John CAGE (1912-1992)
As It Is
Dream (1948) [8:28]
The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs (Words by James Joyce) [3:02]
The Unavailable Memory of (1944) [3:29]
A Flower (1950) [3:31]
Music for Marcel Duchamp (1947) [6:20]
Experiences No. 2 (Words by e.e. Cummings, 1948) [3:33]
A Room (1943) [2:11]
Three Songs (Words by Gertrude Stein, 1932-33)
I. Twenty Years After [0:30]
II. Is It As It Was [0:55]
III. At East and Ingredients 1:23]
Two Pieces For Piano (1946)
I [5:03]
II [5:19]
Five Songs (Words by e.e. Cummings, 1938)
little four paws [1:42]
little Christmas tree [3:37]
in Just- [1:11]
hist whist [0:59]
Tumbling hair [1:06]
Prelude for Meditation (1944) [1:25]
She Is Asleep (1943) [7:49]
Nowth Upon Nacht (Words by James Joyce) [1:22]
Dream (var.) [8:25]
Alexei Lubimov (piano, prepared piano)
Natalia Pschenitschnikova (voice)
rec. December 2011, Radio Studio DRS, Zurich
ECM NEW SERIES 2268 [71:31]

Experience Classicsonline

John Cage is one of those iconic or even iconoclastic names which we all think we know better than we actually do. Though by no means the first to write a score where the musician(s) actions generate no actual musical sounds, his 4:33 is one of the best known artefacts of contemporary music. The OgreOgress label has been pioneering in producing his late number pieces, which can range from the most intimate chamber pieces to vast orchestral monoliths.
As It Is has been released to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the birth of John Cage, and explores his early works from the 1930s and ‘40s. Alexei Lubimov, whose Debussy recordings on ECM 2241/42 are one of my all-time favourites, was amongst the first to introduce his music in Moscow in the 1970s, much to the ire of the authorities of the time. His later working relationship with the composer during the 1980s is illustrated in photos in the booklet. The opening and closing work Dream is a surprise, setting the mood for much of the rest of the programme, sounding as much like something ambient by Harold Budd as anything scarily complex.
Cage’s fascination with language and vocal sounds attracted him to independently spirited writers such as James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and e.e. Cummings, and vocalist Natalia Pschenitschnikova is entirely in sympathy with the worlds Cage creates, from the medieval monodies of Experiences No. 2, to more abstract but intensely artful settings of Stein such as the minimal At East and ingredients. Joyce’s The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs is accompanied by knockings on the wood of the piano, and an atmosphere of almost childlike simplicity can be found in some of the e.e. Cummings settings, though the language also inspires some of Cage’s most rhythmic work. Particularly and literally striking is the Joyce setting Nowth upon nacht, which does throw up one or two idiosyncratic pronunciations but, like one of Michael Nyman’s list songs, is emphatic in its almost monotone high vocal line.
Fans of Cage’s Sonatas & Interludes will also find much to enjoy here, with rich nuances from damped piano strings in The Unavailable Memory of, the classic milestone work Music for Marcel Duchamp, and gems such as A Room which is like a Jan Tinguely sculpture expressed in music, or the gently poetic and genuinely beautiful Prelude for Meditation. Conventional piano sounds can be found here as well, though silence is also a key ingredient in the Two Pieces for Piano.
The piano pieces here are by no means unknown, but with richly recorded and expressive performances they just about top the versions which coincide with those played by Stephen Drury on the Catalyst label (In a Landscape, 09026 61980 2), which are indeed also excellent. If you are a real Cage fan you will want both of course, as the programmes differ considerably. Lubimov has already recorded In a Landscape for ECM in the 2002 recital Der Bote. If I have a criticism of this ECM recording it is the halo of resonance particularly noticeable around the singer. Even for myself as a devotee of ECM records and a sucker for whopping acoustic spaces this becomes distracting in the more rhythmic songs like hist whist, which sounds as if placed in an empty swimming pool. There is also a distinct lack of dates in the documentation for the actual pieces, though song texts are provided in the booklet, along with a text by Paul Griffiths which manages to convey plenty of useful information at the same time as plenty of creative vapidity. Aside from these minor grumbles we have another marvellously atmospheric and deeply involving release from ECM New Series which, in its exploration of John Cage’s opens up unexpected musical nuggets and provides context for his entire creative world.
Dominy Clements

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