It’s tempting to think of John Cage as the dangerous, if smiling, radical. After all, he did pioneer the prepared piano, welcomed turntables and radios into the concert hall, and scored the most famous four-and-a-half minutes of silence in history. Unlike his close colleague Morton Feldman, however, the musicality of his work is easily overlooked. This haunting recording from ECM reminds us of the colour, precision and sheer beauty of his compositions.
The pieces are mostly from Cage’s early rhythmic period, the 1930s and ‘40s, and are for solo piano or prepared piano with occasional voice. Pianist Alexei Lubimov is a significant proponent of 20th-century music in Russia, giving premieres of pieces by Boulez, Stockhausen and Ligeti; by the time he met Cage in 1988, he had been playing this music for decades. He is also known for his Haydn and Mozart, and to that end brings a considered, even classical approach to Cage’s work.
The opening Dream of 1948 sets a tone of hypnotising reverie. By contrast, the chiming pieces for prepared piano, such as the buoyant The Unavailable Memory Of, are rhythmically repetitive; other works are a little more astringent and evoke Cage’s teacher Schoenberg and the ghost of Webern in their use of silence.
Vocalist Natalia Pschenitschnikova adds her own gentle and slightly melancholic touch to The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs and its later companion piece A Flower, both accompanied by Lubimov deftly manipulating the piano lid. The overall tone of the disc is of space and introspection, recorded in Zurich with ECM’s trademark sheen. Despite being very well represented in recent recordings, these pieces receive new and sensitive treatment from Lubimov and Pschenitshnikova. Together they remember Cage as an inventor, certainly, but also as a careful technician and somewhat improbable aesthete.