Notes and Editorial Reviews
Sabine Liebner (pn)
WERGO 6740-2 (4 CDs: 260:54)
The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music
, an etude is a “composition intended as a basis for the improvement of the performer’s technique. … Masterpieces of this kind suitable for public performance as well as private practice were written by Chopin and Debussy.” In the 1970s, in response to several performers’ requests for music for their particular instrument, John Cage
devised three books of etudes:
for piano (1974–75, dedicated to Grete Sultan), the
for violin (1977–80, dedicated to Paul Zukofsky), and
for cello and piano (1978, dedicated to Jack and Jeanne Kirstein). In so doing, he used charts of the stars over different continents to supply material for the specific notes, and created pieces intended to be exceptionally, excruciatingly challenging—if not physically impossible—to play, for symbolic as well as technical reasons. He stated at the time, “These are intentionally as difficult as I can make them, because I think we’re now surrounded by very serious problems in the society, and we tend to think that the situation is hopeless and that it’s just impossible to do something that will make everything turn out properly. So I think that this music, which is almost impossible, gives an instance of the practicality of the impossible.”
To this end, for the
, he consulted Grete Sultan on every possible combination of notes (that is, chords—or perhaps outside of a specific harmonic system the word clusters would be more appropriate) within the span of a single hand, and then, characteristically consulting the I Ching to determine factors of selection and elaboration, constructed 32 etudes, each consisting of eight events employing two staves for each hand. As the material for each hand is unrelated to and independent of the other, and given that each hand must negotiate the entire range of the piano, the sheer physical effort as well as interpretive abstruseness are intimidating, to say the least. And for the listener? Well, audiences weaned on Webern and comfortable with Carter have nothing to fear. The music itself is variously exhilarating in its virtuosic flamboyance and is ominous, playful, and mysterious, although yes, it may turn tedious with overextended listening. (It’s neither necessary, nor perhaps advisable, to listen straight through to all 32 etudes.)
Nevertheless, comparing the three best and most readily available versions at hand, length is a relevant issue. Cage provided all of the notes, but aside from a few ambiguous suggestions (such as adopting a uniform tempo), left their duration, dynamics, and phrasing up to the performer. Grete Sultan, on three Wergo CDs, tackles the complete score in169 minutes. Steffen Schleiermacher likewise takes three (MDG) discs but fills them with 204 minutes. And, as cited above, Sabine Liebner needs four discs for an account more than an hour and a half longer than Sultan’s. How is this possible? It appears that Sultan and Schleiermacher proceed by ear, finding solutions for particularly treacherous leaps or complex, arbitrary figures according to an intuitive sense of shape, logic, and physicality. Sultan’s speed emphasizes momentum and spontaneity, a process somewhat akin to that of the “action painters” with whom Cage associated in the ’50s. The tension and excitement she creates, a product of the drama of execution of such demanding details, are heightened by ringing dynamics, leapfrogging intervals, unpredictable patterns, and songlike motifs fractured into shards or exploding into clusters. Schleiermacher’s ever-so-slightly more measured pace suggests poise and continuity. Though his attacks are differentiated—some delicate, some crisp and almost swinging—his rhythmic gestures, though varied according to circumstance, sustain a singular perspective.
Taking Cage at his word (“uniform”), Liebner chose a consistent one-minute length for each of the eight events per etude, which accounts for her overall timing. As the etudes vary in activity, and thus density of events, her phrasing grows similarly unpredictable. Some etudes feature a relentless urgency, others require breathing room between events, which allows the surreptitious resonances Cage included to hover in the air more noticeably. Though she cannot quite match Sultan’s impulsive drive, Liebner never sounds like she is playing it safe; irregular passages are almost gleefully disjunct, isolated notes chime, and clusters splash and reveal more thrust as they accumulate and grow knottier from etude to etude. With a larger space to fill, she takes advantage of a more flexible sense of timing; she may begin an event briskly and slow down to a crawl, or discover the wit in a contrast of hand-to-hand voicings.
In other words, it’s impossible for me to choose between the Sultan, Schleiermacher, and Liebner versions of
; each offers its own character and point of view. I can only say I enjoy whichever one I am listening to at the time. However, I did discover that at the time of this writing, approximately three months before publication, the complete edition of Schleiermacher’s Cage piano survey—18 CDs, including
—was selling for between $57 and $64 at Amazon and ArkivMusic. Less than $4 per CD; that’s a steal. With the money you save, you can supplement your purchase with the Sultan or Liebner recording, guilt-free.
FANFARE: Art Lange
Works on This Recording
Etudes australes by John Cage
Sabine Liebner (Piano)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1974-1975; USA
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