Thursday 22 May 2014

I cannot imagine finer performances of Cage’s works for Two Keyboards than these from the Pestova/Meyer Piano Duo on a new release from Naxos

American composer John Milton Cage Jr. (1912-1992) ran the risk of never being taken seriously again when he wrote his 1952 composition 4′33″. This work that contains no actual ‘performed’ or ‘deliberate’ sounds is often taken as being merely silence. However, whatever one’s own opinion on the concept of the work, Cage was making a serious point, that there’s no such thing as ‘silence’ but rather there are sounds all around us, including the sounds around the audience during performance.

It is the use of sounds produced by two pianos within moments of silence that is an important aspect of Mine for Two, one of two works, by Cage, on a new release from Naxos . Volume 2 in the series John Cage - Works for Two Keyboards features the Pestova/Meyer Piano Duo Xenia Pestova  and Pascal Meyer who also play Cage’s Three Dances.


Music for Two (1984/87) was based on an idea from earlier in his career, that of creating a collection of pieces that could be performed by a variety of instruments in any combination. In the case of ‘Music for …’ Cage eventually wrote seventeen instrumental parts thus allowing a wide variety of ensembles including the two piano version performed here. In order to make the various parts work together Cage provided precise stopwatch timing in his score whilst allowing considerable flexibility between the stopwatch timings.

Music for Two opens with wiry piano sounds produced by bowing the piano strings whilst the other piano picks out a motif of fragmented intervals. These two juxtaposing sounds are repeated until a shrill bowed sound appears. The two pianists then share the fragmented motif until there is a short period of silence. One piano enters with a short motif before strange wiry, razor like sounds appear from the other piano, soon taken up by the other pianist. There is another period of silence before deep resonant sounds appear with isolated fragmentary notes from the other pianist that are then expanded on before being shared by both pianists who seem to respond to each other. Soon the music becomes bolder, more dramatic before a brief silence.  The music continues as before until whistling, rasping textures appear; quite spectacular in their own individual way. The fragmented intervals re-appear before another silence.  The music continues with short, sharp, edgy string sounds interrupted by short pauses. The fragmented intervals continue juxtaposed with the edgier string sounds before becoming more rich and resonant.  Deep resonant sounds appear together with pauses set against the bolder piano notes. Occasionally there are quiet streaks of resonant sound against more of the conventionally played piano motif. It is Cage’s use of space around his sounds that is one of the unique features here.

A little rising and falling motif is heard to which the resonant phrases are set, soon taken up by both pianos before one returns to a fragmented piano motif, becoming more dramatic at times. Soon there are high pitched bowed sounds from one piano. It is interesting how Cage uses each piano to create contrast and space. Both pianists rise to a more dramatic section in the conventionally played fragmented motif. Here Cage seems to make a resonant sound shoot as though from the note of one piano to the other. Shrill and deep resonant sounds arrive, together with pauses. At times quite ethereal sounds are created before the music grows more animated and dynamic. The fragmented intervals are interrupted by strange resonant string sounds that are repeated with pauses, rising in pitch before being joined by deeper resonant sounds. It is the seemingly fragmented phrases that continue before the higher, resonant sound leads to the coda.

I have used the word fragmented a number of times in relation to this music but there is a structure here in the way that the sounds and pauses are grouped.

These are masterly performances of this demanding music. This is not music for the faint hearted but if one is interested in the kind of effects created by Cage then this is certainly a fascinating work.

The much earlier work, Three Dances for prepared piano (1945), is a different matter altogether and raises in my mind the question as to who really invented the concept of minimalism. Certainly there are elements of minimalism in the way that Cage uses repetition in this work. Written for prepared piano, the first movement commences with a rhythmic ‘drumming’ sounds with a peculiarly hollow sound from both pianists in a spectacular opening, quite unlike any other piano music. Varying textures create the illusion of a percussion ensemble.

Slow rhythmic ‘drumming’ opens the second movement, shifting across the sound stage, pointed up by odd little resonant hoots. There are shifts and hesitations in the rhythm and later on a pause with bell like textures before the music moves ahead often becoming quiet resonant. Surely Gamelan music was an influence.

With the third and final movement, the pace picks up with more ‘drumming’ sounds but constantly interspersed by many other textures. Occasionally there are lulls with quieter, rhythmic motifs. This music becomes quite intoxicating in its repetition and rhythmic onward drive, often becoming quite insistent before the sudden end.

I cannot imagine a finer performance of this dynamic, intoxicating work.

These performers are finely recorded at the Espace Devouverte, Philharmonie, Luxembourg and there are informative booklet notes.

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