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CD Review

John Cage

MSR 1400

A Tribute

  • Four Walls
  • Primitive
  • In the Name of the Holocaust
  • Quest
  • Our Spring Will Come
  • Piano Sextet in A minor
  • Ophelia
  • Sonatas & Interludes for Prepared Piano
  • Three Early Songs
  • Two Pieces for Piano
  • Music for Marcel Duchamp
  • Spontaneous Earth
  • Three Easy Pieces for Piano
  • The Unavailable Memory of
  • Two Pieces for Piano
Joshua Pierce, piano & prepared piano
Robert White, tenor
American Festival of Microtonal Music Ensemble
MSR Classics MS1400 2CDs
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In John Cage's anniversary year, CDs celebrating his life, work and music have appeared at a gratifying pace. Although all the works on this two-CD set from MSR Classics except Quest and Piano Sextet in A minor appear elsewhere in the catalog, Pierce's association with the music of Cage over three decades ought to equip him to bring expert interpretations to our attention.

It does. A New Yorker, Joshua Pierce studied at the Juilliard, and with Artur Balsam, Victor Babin, Arthur Loesser, and Dorothy Taubman. His first prominence as a Cage specialist came with his recordings of the all-important Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano, which appeared on Tomato in 1977. He is still also closely associated with the American Festival of Microtonal Music. Indeed, the present recordings first appeared on the short-lived "ants records".

Almost the first thing you'll notice about Pierce's playing is the steady, calm yet totally confident command with which he paces and navigates through the intricacies of some of the composer's most engaging and enticing works for solo piano. Tenor Robert White also sings with a nice mix of precision and conviction, projection and restraint in the interlude, Act One – VII of Four Walls and the Three Early Songs [CD.2 tr.s 20-22]. The American Festival of Microtonal Music Ensemble makes the "Piano Sextet – Prelude for six instruments" [CD.1 tr.21] equally memorable. But Pierce's depths and reach as a performer extend much further. He manages to follow Cage's contours without emphasizing them; to accentuate the rhythmic without losing spontaneity; and to introduce color without over-sweetening the harmonics.

The most compelling works in a truly captivating and utterly enjoyable recital are probably the "Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano", a recording at a concert given at New York University in 1999. This has the advantage of a lively and responsive acoustic. The music fairly sings, breaths and extends its every nuance to us. The sonorities get a full exposure… the almost gamelan-like qualities of the 18th [CD.2. tr.2], for instance. At the same time, the music doesn't wander or peregrinate, for all its sense of the new. Pierce is completely in charge.

Pierce's fluency as derived from this authority is informed by a courage – simply to have the music work as Cage intended. If there should be silence, silence there is. If insistence, insistence there is – such as with the repeated notes at the end of the final section of Four Walls [CD.1 tr.16], a kind of self-assurance blended with enthusiasm. Much of the music in the for Prepared Piano [CD.2 tr.s 1-19], the bulk of the second CD, is "suspended", moves slowly and almost imperceptibly. It needs considerable deftness of conception and execution to achieve this, and for the music not to lose itself. Pierce is agile in the extreme in this respect… his pacing, tempi and sense of the music's structure and relative proportions – and why and how these proportions matter – are superb. The result is that we're involved in the progress of, say, the later numbers of the Sonatas & Interludes for the music's sake; not because we're listening to the effects of the (mechanical) preparation. Those aspects of the music on this recording convey a sense of the placid and sweetness, almost; not the eccentric.

It all but goes without saying that these interpretative depths are bolstered by superb technical solidity. Cage's music – in turns genuinely transparent, deceptively simple and extortionately difficult (as with the later piano works) – needs clarity and a certain detachment in the command which the performers bring to it. Pierce has these qualities; though he never abandons or loses sight of the warmth, which drives Cage's conception. The music for prepared piano is an example… In the Name of the Holocaust [CD.1 tr.18]. Add to these qualities, Pierce's sense of balance between momentum and consideration, the need for sensitive tempi and for an awareness of the overall structure of the music, and you do have an almost ideal performance.

Pierce also makes it plain just how varied is Cage's output for piano in terms of technique. His playing is by turns gentle, soft, yielding – as in some of the slower movements of "Four Walls" (XI, for instance, [CD.1 tr.13]). It's also jolly, lively and exuberant (XIII from the same work); and magisterial, demanding, extrovert. Never over intellectual or dry, prone to sophistry or – worse – a perceived need to persuade – Cage is allowed to speak for himself at all times. No composer could ask for more. Truly a tribute to treasure. MSR is to be congratulated for reviving these recordings and presenting them so well.

The result of this rich and knowing combination of aspects to Pierce's playing would still not be worthy of our attention if it were not for a certain spontaneity, a dedication to the aforementioned variety in the composer's pianism, a determination lightly to accentuate Cage's freshness. At times this is, of course, almost playful; at times earnest yet delighted; always full of vigor. Maybe Pierce is reflecting the closeness of much of Cage's work to dance. In the end, Pierce's accounts of all this music, in its various ways, are always focused, sonorous, inviting and full of life.

The acoustics – all halls in New York – are fine throughout. The attention is invariably on the music, the player, the progression of ideas, the effect of Cage's subtle rhythms, his pauses, references and changing tempi. Never effect or the splash of what would – in other situations – surely be noticed as virtuosity. Credit for this is also Pierce's, to be sure. But the sense that we have experienced a remarkable, thought-provoking and authoritative musical journey, not an "event" for its own sake is uppermost. The liner notes by Eric Salzman are well worth reading… there is still insufficient material explaining Cage and his innovations available in print. Again, these essays take the composer at face value and help us reach sympathetic and informed conclusions which inform our listening.

Whether or not you have other recordings of this music, Pierce's are ones well worth investigating. If you're new to Cage, or to his piano repertoire, this is a set of real stature and achievement. It makes an excellent place to start. Indeed, an excellent tribute to Cage. Recommended.

Copyright © 2012, Mark Sealey

Trumpet