‘Scarlatti: Cage: Sonatas’ by David Greilsammer an unsettling package
So far the new recording for which has I’ve gotten the most pitches from publicists this year is a mash-up of sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti and John Cage performed by David Greilsammer.
The Israeli pianist hits the keyboard as though he were an electrician producing glittering sparks, and Sony Classical has good reason to sense a hit with “Scarlatti: Cage: Sonatas.” I hope the label has one. This hard-to-resist release is good for Cage, good for Scarlatti, good for Greilsammer.
But bad for history.
Greilsammer alternates seven sonatas from Cage’s 1949 Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano with eight Scarlatti keyboard sonatas, written for harpsichord two centuries earlier. This is not a fanciful notion. Structurally, Cage followed Scarlatti’s binary model. Furthermore, Cage’s prepared piano — in which the composer inserted nuts, bolts and rubber erasers between the strings of the piano to produce percussion effects — is an avant-garde equivalent of the putting tacks on piano strings to mimic the sound of the harpsichord.
Nor is there anything new in pairing America’s most progressive 20th century composer with the Italian or German Baroque. There have been several such recent CDs. Chinese pianist Pi-Hsien Chen has pitted Cage’s chance-derived Music of Changes with Scarlatti. The Dutch period instrument ensemble, B’Rock, has put together Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” with Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts. Luxembourg pianist Francesco Tristano’s “bachCage” is just that. Cage and Frescobaldi have come together thanks to the vocal group cantoLX and thanks to the oddball duo of accordionist Stafan Hussong and trombonist Mike Svoboda.
There is reason to approach each one of these attempts at Cage/Baroque happenings gingerly. None of these are American musicians (and several of the recordings were never released in this country although all can be easily enough ordered online). And overseas, where Cage is widely thought to have been the most fascinating American composer, the urge to connect him with European musical traditions he resisted can be inappropriately overwhelming.
The fact is that Cage couldn’t have cared less about the European Baroque, with its emphasis on rhythmic regularity and its structural reliance on harmony.
Growing up in L.A., Cage did, however, have an early flirtation with Bach. In his student days he had befriended L.A.'s greatest pianist of the early ‘30s, Richard Buhlig, who became the first pianist to record Bach’s complete “Art of the Fugue.”
Cage turned pages at the session. But intrigued by Bach’s counterpoint, he mostly got distracted and forgot to turn. Buhlig was furious. RCA Victor never released what would have been a large and expensive set of 78-rpm discs, because of Buhlig’s many mistakes. The pianist blamed them on Cage, but Buhlig was a notorious bundle of nerves and none of his recordings was ever released. Still, Cage couldn’t hear Bach again without thinking of that session.
The use of Scarlatti’s example as a starting point for Sonatas and Interludes was less about Baroque than other things. Cage wrote the score in his lower Manhattan tenement, which he painted white and in which he lived without furniture. He was getting over the traumatic breakup of his marriage, and he calmed his mind with the emptiness of his surroundings and by studying Zen Buddhism.
Scarlatti served as a musical empty mold, and Cage’s fillings proved typically subversive. He did away with cadences and undid harmony by turning many of the piano’s notes into unpitched percussive sounds.
In the end, any connection between Cage and the Baroque is coincidental. But Cage was a composer devoted to coincidence – Sonatas and Interludes is the pivotal score that led to Cage’s moving into chance composition. So when Greilsammer goes out of his way to find similarities between Scarlatti and Cage, he is led on a revelatory wild-goose chase that ends in an interpretive no-man’s land. The result is Scarlatti that sounds like Cage and Cage that sounds like Scarlatti.
Some of this is simply a misreading of Cage’s sonatas. The composer’s own playing of them was lyrical, a move away from his earlier more agitated and aggressively percussive prepared piano music. But they are still percussive. Greilsammer’s sensational solution is to play Scarlatti with a remarkably percussive brilliance, and then to play Cage with even more percussive brilliance.
Glenn Gould’s ear-opening perversions come to mind. By not sounding anything like Gould, Scarlatti or Cage, Greilsammer embodies the spirits of them all. This is pianistic perversion of greatness.
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