John Cage: “Works for Two Pianos” a mixed bag

John Cage’s music can be difficult to listen to. And many times, that’s the point. Cage wanted audiences to be aware of the unspoken assumptions about what music was and how it should be listened to — or viewed. There’s often a strong visual element in his work. Which, I think, is the problem I had with “Music for Two.”

It’s part of his “Music for ___” series. Cage wrote a part for every instrument, and the composition/performance becomes whatever the combination of instruments are at the time. In this case, it’s two prepared pianos. The problem for me is that there’s just not a lot going on aurally. I suspect seeing the performances interact and the visual cues provided by them moving from one part of the piano to the other would give me a much richer experience. Musically, it sounds like about five minutes of material spread over a 29-minute track.

By contrast, “Three Dances” more than justified the price of admission. This is Cage at his finest. The prepared pianos sound like sophisticated electronics or exotic percussion instruments, which make these 1945 works seem as if they could have been written yesterday. And Cage’s complex rhythmic patterns keep things hopping. This isn’t the metronomic regularity of minimalism. Rather, these dances crackle and explode unpredictably, yet all the while simmering with energy that can only sometimes be contained.

Xenia Pestova and Pascal Meyer perform these works with amazing precision and obvious relish, even if they couldn’t quite sell me on the “Music for Two.” That track, I’d recommend only to Cage compleatists. “Three Dances,” though, are for everyone. Those pieces (and the Pestova/Meyer Piano Duo’s performance) rock.

John Cage: Works for Two Keyboards 2
Pestova/Meyer Piano Duo
Naxos

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