CAGE ‘A Tribute’ = Works for Piano and Prepared Piano – Joshua Pierce, p./Robert White, tenor/American Festival of Microtonal Music Ens./Johnny Reinhard – MSR Classics (2 CDs)

by | Dec 20, 2012 | Classical CD Reviews

JOHN CAGE ‘A Tribute’ = Works for Piano and Prepared Piano – Joshua Pierce, piano/Robert White, tenor/American Festival of Microtonal Music Ens./Johnny Reinhard – MSR Classics MSR1400 (2 CDs), 155:44 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

John Cage, the experimenter, is at least a well-known name. Whether it is his works for “prepared piano” (which he invented as almost a one-man percussion ensemble that resembles the sounds of Balinese gamelan) or the many, many works Cage wrote that rely on chance elements and random sound sources; the association with abstraction that many place on his music is largely accurate.
However, this very nice and fairly comprehensive overview of his piano music offers a very interesting and mostly accessible introduction to his music. The first disc begins this set in especially compelling fashion. Cage’s Four Walls (from 1944) for solo piano is a big work with many sections and divided into two “Acts”; befitting the Merce Cunningham “dance play” that it was written for. This is a dark, dramatic and nearly impressionistic work that truly sounds choreographic.
The remainder of the first disc offers some very nice surprises. There are first recordings of some Cage “miniatures” such as Quest, Our Spring Will Come and the Piano Sextet for “six instruments.”  These are all very intriguing little delights as are the other works for piano and prepared piano, most notably the bleak In the Name of the Holocaust (which actually references James Joyce; not the historical atrocities of World War Two) or the spritely Ophelia. All the works on this disc are from the late 1930s to 1948 and illustrate more of the intriguing collaborations Cage undertook with his partner experimental dancer Merce Cunningham.
The second disc is structured similarly, beginning with the composer’s ground breaking and somewhat massive Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano. This was the first work for the prepared piano to gain Cage some renown and the resultant sounds are the result of both the requisite player skill but also to Cage’s meticulous notation and directions for the preparation of the piano.
I was quite taken by some of the smaller surprises on this disc as well. For example, the first recording of the Three Early Songs from 1933 occupies all of fewer than three minutes. The texts are by Gertrude Stein and Cage’s odd, sparse but deft music match the quirky prose perfectly. Tenor Robert White performs quite well in these songs and also in the odd, single movement of the Four Walls that requires a solo voice; not piano (movement VII).
The second disc also contains the important two sets of Two Pieces for Piano (the 1935 pair and those from 1946), the somewhat well-known Music for Marcel Duchamp and the first recording of the Three Easy Pieces for Piano. I found the latter especially fascinating due to their three cryptic dedications (to “E.P.S”, “M.M.” and “C.M.” respectively) as well as their oddly compelling character. These works really do sound like student exercises, are simply notated and – none the less – bear a strangely out of place sound that feels like something else.
These two discs—a lengthy, but weirdly attractive compilation of Cage piano music, make the case for John Cage being, perhaps, one of the twentieth century’s pioneers of piano writing. This set also does offer what I feel is a very fine and mostly “safe” introduction to the music of John Cage. I have long felt that Cage’s legacy as a philosopher and thinker on the very nature of music will survive the test of time. It is also that some – if not all – of his music ought to be played and heard and sustain the same legacy.
These works, performed wonderfully by Joshua Pierce, assisted by Robert White and the members of the American Festival of Microtonal Music Ensemble, are a great place to start this discussion.
—Daniel Coombs

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