JOHN CAGE: “Works for Two Keyboards 2” = Music for Two; Three Dances for prepared pianos – Pestova/Meyer Piano Duo – Naxos
JOHN CAGE: “Works for Two Keyboards 3” = Winter Music; Two; Experiences No. 1 – Pestova/Meyer Piano Duo – Naxos

JOHN CAGE: “Works for Two Keyboards 2” = Music for Two; Three Dances for prepared pianos – Pestova/Meyer Piano Duo – Naxos 8.559727 (4/29/14) 52:27 ***:

 JOHN CAGE: “Works for Two Keyboards 3” = Winter Music; Two; Experiences No. 1 – Pestova/Meyer Piano Duo – Naxos 8.559728 (7/08/14) 58:02 ***:

Nearly all of John Cage’s music, including his works for piano, “prepared” or otherwise, has always been a set of niche curiosities. In fact, virtually all of Cage’s music remains controversial and is still seen as the product of a highly creative and iconoclastic personality writing during some of the country’s most turbulent times. However, his many, many piano works do also remain as some of Cage’s most “accessible” and easy-to- listen-to scores.

The very talented and knowledgeable Xenia Pestova and Pascal Meyer have now completed three volumes of these important works. I am highly familiar with most of this music and have reviewed their “Volume 1” for a different venue. These two volumes are very well done and provide a welcome addition for those who find the work of John Cage to be at least fascinating (as do I) or at least maddeningly unique.

In the second volume, The Music for Two is the more abstract and static of the two works present. It moves very slowly and in hard to anticipate fashion. There are plenty of moments of silence – which, for Cage, was a valid and necessary compositional tool – and the chords are at times punctuated utterances and at other times are drawn out through pedals and through bowed interior. The piece is structured aurally vertically but one has to really study Cage to see the horizontal implication. It is a very zen-like sparse-sounding work but one that you may find quite intriguing. Cage’s Three Dances for prepared pianos is a whole different matter. There is ample forward momentum here and, thanks to Cage’s very precise instructions for the prepared interior – which include what types of materials and hardware and even what node on what string to place the objects – the sound is like a Gamelan ensemble. I have always thought these works are among Cage’s most interesting and most thought provoking.

The third volume features what most would consider three of his most aleotoric (driven by chance elements) scores. I have the score to his Winter Music and even played it many years ago. It is literally a series of randomly constructed chords (via one of Cage’s favorite random selection methods; the I Ching) arranged spatially on the page with only hints as to when to move to the next; how to attack the chords, (et cetera, et cetera.) Many of the resultant harmonies and progressions in Winter Music are surprisingly rich and even pleasant. I was not familiar with Cage’s Two (written more than thirty years after Winter Music and one of the last things Cage wrote) but I had similar thoughts. It is a long (in this performance, forty-three minutes), slow, soft work that rarely gets louder than piano and has plenty of “spaces” between utterances. Many would probably find this work, in particular (of all in the whole series) the most difficult to endure.

Lastly, Experiences No.1, from 1945, is a very short work originally conceived as a dance work for Cage’s life-long partner and collaborator Merce Cunningham. It is under three minutes, quite lovely and has a measurable, ballet-like forward motion with a definably tonal structure that make it rather pretty, actually.

Whether John Cage (who I had the pleasure of corresponding with a bit many years ago) [I also took a workshop with him…Ed.]  will be remembered in the history of Western art as a composer or as a theorist/philosopher or neither is quite a separate discussion. I think this particular disc will definitely appeal to those already aware of his music; these pieces in particular may appeal to a wider collective – in particular the charming and propulsive Three Dances. Pestova and Meyer are strong players with a clear affinity for modern music. This is not a “piano collection” so much as it is a John Cage collection. I would welcome the chance to hear more from them in other repertoire!

—Daniel Coombs

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