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John Cage

Seven (1988)
Quartets I-VIII for 24 instruments (1976)

Orchester Jakobsplatz München/Daniel Grossmann

Neos Productions CNEO 10720 SA

John Cage is a composer who never fails to surprise. His creative output is so varied that it makes classification very difficult.

Cage was a man of constant artistic and perceptual discoveries, always experimenting and refining. As soon as he mastered certain techniques, he moved into different paths. This disc presents two works that at times seem similar but are fundamentally different in perception and process.

Seven, composed very late in the composer’s life, is scored for flute, clarinet, percussion, piano, violin, viola and violoncello. It has many Feldmanesque features in its economy of means and form and how sound events unfold. Both composers might have disagreed with that, but one cannot really deny both the personal and artistic connection and mutual influences of these composers, two of the truly original compositional voices to have emerged from the U.S. in the twentieth century. The choice of instruments itself helps to bring out stunning harmonious sounds and creates a rich consonant spectrum where each sonority is given just enough breathing space, simultaneously creating shifting landscapes.

Quartets I-VIII is one of the most striking orchestral works of the contemporary repertoire. Written for the U.S. bicentennial and employing eight old American chorales, the result is strikingly characterised by a haunting simplicity and beautiful colours. Cage uses various ever-changing quartets within the orchestra. The choice of pitch and instruments was influenced by I Ching.

The music might seem or indeed sound simple at first, but this could not be further from the truth. It is actually quite difficult to perform, as the constant fragmentation of the orchestra into small groups requires the utmost attention and concentration from the performers. It can, therefore, be very tiring for the orchestral musicians and the conductor who must always be alert to cueing performers and controlling the sound, whilst keeping the continuity and meditative character of each work intact; easier said than done. Additionally, the performing musicians require lengthy counting for each entry.

Daniel Grossmann does an excellent job in transmitting the lyrical, expressive and meditative qualities of both works effectively. The orchestral playing (or rather the orchestral chamber music playing) is always assured, with special attention to all fine musical and extra-musical qualities and details.

On hearing this disc, I could not fail to notice how fast the time passed. One hour of music seemed much shorter, which is to the credit of both the composer and the performers. This is a thoroughly well thought-out and balanced programme delivered with the most immediate fastidious playing by (to my satisfaction) a young orchestra and conductor. 

Evis Sammoutis