The Great Cage Recordings: Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (1)

It makes sense for me to begin with Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes; I’m a keyboard player and most of the music I review is for one kind of keyboard or another. It’s one of the first Cage pieces I actually encountered—I must have heard them as early as high school, or certainly no later than my undergraduate years, and like almost everyone else, found the timbre of the prepared piano enchanting. My later difficulties with Cage—which extended through the rest of my undergraduate and graduate years up to 1992—resulted from bad information, shortsightedness on my part, and terrible recordings, all of which made me unwilling to grapple with most of his music for a long time. Even so, one of my last Master’s papers at Peabody was an analysis of The Perilous Night (in Margaret Leng Tan’s superb performance, still available on New Albion), which my professor thought showed promise.

When I began reviewing recordings for American Record Guide in 1993, I got some Cage recordings and became friendly with Brian Brandt, the owner of Mode Records; he gave me a number of the recordings. The fine Sibley Library at the Eastman School of Music, where I was completing my doctorates in harpsichord performance and musicology, had many others. Sometime during those years I rediscovered the Sonatas and Interludes and they became important to me as a music-lover and as someone who wanted to talk about the pitches in Cage’s music. They are for me Cage’s most important composition before 1950, and one whose greatness he usually only matched in all of the best music he made afterward. There’s that great line in the “Lecture on Nothing” on his deliberately choosing quiet sounds in the advent of World War II; this fact, plus Cage’s own acknowledgment that the work responded to the seven permanent emotions in Indian aesthetics—including the erotic, mirth, the odious, all of which tend toward the final one, tranquility—makes the Sonatas a kind of expressive line drawn in the sand: an eloquent statement in the face of other works from the time aiming for a much grander (and sometimes frankly patriotic statements) on both sides of the Atlantic: Americanist symphonists like Harris, Schuman, and Copland, Messiaen’s Turangalîla, Britten’s Peter Grimes. It poses the possibility of an avant-garde serenity, a possibility hardly considered in the 1940s. No wonder Cage won a citation from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a Guggenheim on the basis of this piece.

There are a number of fine recordings of the work. I’ll consider only one here; later entries will discuss others along with shorter critiques of ones that aren’t as successful.

My friend and colleague Louis Goldstein recorded the work on December 20, 1994; it was released as Greenseye Music 4794 in 1996, along with a concert performance of Dream from December 11, 1995. Louie can do anything, but his readings of Cage and Feldman are striking for their expansive but vital character.

In the Sonatas and Interludes, he plays a large piano, which results in deeper sounds and, at least to my mind, more heterogenous ones, too. He has a grand conception of the piece: the tempos are usually broad (but not overly so) and the gestures measured but also somehow noble. When the damper pedal is engaged the sounds can reverberate for a long time.

The performances are full of small details that lend to the piece the grandeur I noted above. In the first sonata he uses very subtle rubato: first a noticeable (but nonetheless slight) pause after the first unexpected thudding sound. Then, near the end, he speeds up a bit to make the sudden appearance of mostly unprepared A-minor triads more dramatic.

Sonata 2 contrasts with the first: it requires a more rhythmically incisive manner, and once more Goldstein responds brilliantly. The variety of sounds adds to the appeal. Rubato is present here, but much more moderated (It appears, for instance, midway through the second half after one of the most metronomic passages in the performance). The different sounds also have an effect on the ending of the sonata, which sounds more abrupt than it does in other recordings.

Another highlight is the First Interlude. The preparations give a microtonal flavor to many of the notes that suggest a definite pitch. Still, the overtones are rich and very complex, another reason to favor a larger instrument. Later in the piece, the music gives way to several groovy, asymmetric ostinatos. He doesn’t play these as mercilessly as others have: they sound more mysterious, somehow. This particular movement is one I find it very difficult to stop listening to (Always a sign of a good performance.)

As the cycle unfolds, Goldstein projects a very clear and compelling structure for the whole, which for me culminates in the dramatic arc for the pieces beginning with the Third Interlude. This he plays more aggressively than most of the other performances I know. Thereafter, Cage seems to become increasingly preoccupied with the interaction between prepared tones and unprepared ones: these pieces remind me of Schoenberg’s famous remark that Cage would come to a wall because he had no sense of harmony, to which Cage responded that he would spend the rest of his life beating his head against that wall. By juxtaposing prepared and unprepared tones, Cage poses (perhaps in spite of himself) a new possibility for harmony.

I described the final Sonata XVI as “a music box quietly playing in some distant reality” (John Cage, 51). No performance I know suggests that effect better than Goldstein’s. It begins in a Gouldian tempo with a Fürtwängleresque expression in the first half; but in the second, everything becomes otherworldly, motionless, and serene—all the more so because of his choices for the first half.

Checking today online, I don’t see any evidence that the recording is still available, but in the meantime, a 1982 performance gives a sense of his great artistry.

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