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Cage: Solo For Piano / Sabine Liebner

Release Date: 12/10/2013 
Label:  Wergo   Catalog #: 6768   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  John Cage
Performer:  Sabine Liebner
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

CAGE Solo For Piano Sabine Liebner (pn) WERGO 6768-2 (69:53)

Not to be confused with Music for Piano (1952–56) or Music of Changes (1951), both early, extended works for solo piano, Solo for Piano is the isolated 63-page piano score from John Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1957–58), Read more which according to his instructions could be played independently or in combination with any or all of the other 13 non-synchronous instrumental parts. On its own, it consists of 84 distinct types of conventional and graphic notation—every method which Cage could create or adapt at this point in time, in order to provide pianists with an almost unlimited scope of possibilities regarding selection of notes, durations, dynamics, time frames, non-musical sounds, and techniques, along with the freedom to play as much or as little of the score as they chose. In so doing, he meant not only to ensure a unique musical experience each time it was performed, but, in requiring that the performer conscientiously and respectfully interpret the material in the spirit in which the composer intended, also to emphasize that freedom cannot exist without responsibility. As a self-proclaimed anarchist, Cage was acutely aware that anarchy does not mean chaos, but rather a self-imposed and not specifically government-enforced manner of ethical behavior. Or as Bob Dylan once sang, “To live outside the law, you must be honest.”

To this end, Cage devised a complex and challenging score which could not be read and recreated in conventional musical fashion, but needed its various details to be “realized” point by painstaking point—and every step of the way he had in mind the meticulous, perspicacious personality of pianist (and later electronic composer) David Tudor. Over the years, Tudor recorded the score four times—twice as the Concert for Piano and Orchestra (the first, the work’s premiere, documented on The 25-Year Retrospective Concert of the Music of John Cage on Wergo, and the second 34 years later, released on The Piano Concertos on Mode), once as accompaniment to Cage’s narration of stories on Indeterminacy (Smithsonian/Folkways), and in 1982 on its own, as Solo for Piano (most recently available on the Ear-Rational label). Due to the particular circumstances of each of these performances, Tudor decided to realize two different versions of the score, which would allow him to treat with precision the countless options built into it while choosing freely from the material at hand, at times layering or compacting material as the composer allows, and thereby expanding or contracting the music’s time-frame. (For a fuller explanation of Tudor’s incredibly detailed accounts of the score, see Isaac Schankler’s article “Cage = 100: Tudor and the Performance Practice of Concert for Piano and Orchestra” at newmusicbox.org/articles/cage-tudor-concert-for-piano-and-orchestra/.)

Thus, with some sense of the potentially overwhelming amount of preparation and commitment the score demands, it’s not surprising that so few pianists have taken on the challenge. To my knowledge, while live performances pop up intermittently, only three other pianists have recorded versions of the score—Joseph Kubera, as the Concert for Piano and Orchestra with the S.E.M. Ensemble (Wergo), Steffen Schleiermacher twice as Solo for Piano (ITM and MDG, see Fanfare 23:4), and the disc at hand with Sabine Liebner. (Another recording, by Thomas Schultz, was announced for release on Mode in 2012, but has not appeared.) All but Liebner’s—including each of Tudor’s versions—range between 26 and 38 minutes in length. In the past, Liebner has proven to be an outstanding interpreter of Cage and Morton Feldman’s most formidable music, typically choosing tempos that are much slower than those of other such specialists. However, that does not seem to explain the length of her version of Solo for Piano.

In fact, she favors a sharp attack, with a crisp, focused sense of linear logic (albeit not continuity, strictly speaking) that creates momentum. Tudor’s Solo for Piano recording, which conveys a powerful feeling of authenticity, is a more dramatic experience, with an awareness of the moment—he sculpts surprising contrasts of dynamics, densities (single notes versus chord clusters), and qualities of sound (on the strings and wood of the piano, pedal effects, and including a duck call and amplified Slinky). Liebner takes what could be described (perhaps tongue-in-cheek) as a more orthodox approach, parsing the events in an almost lyrical manner that suggests, if not actually reveals, possible internal harmonic relationships, from sparse, even tender Webernesque systems to blocks of undifferentiated pitches. Her palette of noises involves subtle rustling, clattering timbres (like metal on plastic) and water, drawing attention away from the music as a purely musical experience to that of the activity that creates the music. If both she and Tudor were performing King Lear , I’d say that he better represents the gravitas of the situation, where she revels in the quality of the language and detailed wordplay.

There is no explanation of how Liebner arrived at her solutions, information which could be intellectually satisfying but, trusting her judgment and commitment, not necessary for an enjoyment of the way she presents the music. I believe that the length of her performance is due to her giving us the complete score, quite possibly for the first time. As in any such expansive enterprise, there are occasional longueurs, repetitive passages, and unexpected interruptions and detours. But Liebner gives us more of the breadth and wonder that Solo for Piano is capable of than anyone else to date.

FANFARE: Art Lange
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Works on This Recording

Solo for Piano by John Cage
Performer:  Sabine Liebner (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1958; USA 

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