March 2010 • Dominy Clements, MusicWeb International

Atoll ACD 309 • The Perilous Night (for prepared piano solo); First DeConstruction: The Perilous Night (for unpreparing piano and electronics); Portrait de Socrate (piano solo transcription); Le piège de Méduse(for paper-prepared piano); Gnossienne IV (simulated quarter-tone piano version); Bacchanale(transcribed for prepared piano duet with Sarah Watkins); Vexations (celesta version). Tzenka Dianova, piano, prepared piano, celesta

“…very well produced and superbly performed programme of some fascinating music…. the integrity and quality of the performances is beyond question. I’ve enjoyed this enormously, and hope you will too.”

While it might be the bane of piano maintenance guys and concert halls keen on preserving their hugely expensive concert grands, John Cage’s experiments with the ‘prepared piano’; the transformation of the sounds produced by the strings through the addition of anything from paperclips, coins, pieces of wood, and the pristine nut and bolt demurely included on the back cover of this release. This forms a vast playing-field for composers seeking new realms of sonority from an otherwise common and familiar instrument. Careful exponents need not damage the instrument, but the reputation of careful and considerate contemporary composers and performers suffers from the few who have left acidic fingerprints all over the strings, shoved rusty tacks into the felt of the hammers and lost bits of metal into the mechanism. 

Works like John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes emphasise the percussive aspect of the piano, but in such a way that also reveals worlds of new subtlety. The Perilous Nightpredates Sonatas and Interludes by a good four years, but introduces similar concepts of variation in rhythm and timbre in its six movements. The piece was written at a difficult period in the composer’s life, and it expresses angst and fear brought about by separation and loneliness. Tzenka Dianova creates both atmosphere and propulsive momentum in this detailed recording. 

The First DeConstraction is an improvisatory response to both Cage and Satie. Dianova writes, “It began with the word deconstruction, which was “merely a pun” (Cage’s phrase) on John Cage’s construction. Originally, it was the title of a sound-recycling piece of mine, written to accompany his “Perilous Night”. Later on, the word inspired the idea of a collection of “deconstructed” works of Satie and Cage – works reinvented by unusual means, a respectful tribute to the two composers.” This is a sometimes fairly desperate sounding mixture of manipulated piano sounds, prepared, plucked and rumbled strings – intriguing in sonority and technique, but rather enigmatic in terms of expressive message. This might have something to do with its function as an accompaniment to the ‘live un-preparing’ of a piano after a performance – a way of rescuing these sounds from utilitarian obscurity and elevating them to a concert event. 

The works by Erik Satie begin with what was a two-piano transcription by John Cage of Portrait de Socrate, an arrangement of the first part of Satie’s Socrate, Drame Symphonique en Trois Parties avec Voix. On this recording it has been re-arranged for solo piano by Tzenka Dianova, and very good it sounds too. Satie’s strange mixture of timelessly static, almost ritualistic rhythm, and often warmly welcoming harmonic progressions and flowing French pianism is typically attractive. The dashing runs and dancing rhythms of Le piège de Méduse are given an extra comic touch through the addition of paper on the strings. This does have its charm, but sometimes just makes the piano sound like a pub instrument in need of repair. The well known Gnossienne IV is nicely performed here, but is stated as being a ‘simulated quarter-tone piano version’. I don’t hear any quarter-tones, either in terms of melodic interval or relative intonation – maybe the word ‘simulated’ should be ‘virtual’, either that or I’m missing the point somewhere. 

Born out of necessity, Bacchanale is John Cage’s first piece for prepared piano, created when a concert hall proved too small for the planned percussion ensemble. This is a striking piece, literally and metaphorically. As an earlier work for prepared piano it has a more earthy, less nuanced feel than the other works of this nature. The elemental percussive aspects of the work are the principal driving force, but there are still plenty of pleasant surprises; little nuggets of sound which are like jewels sparkling amongst the rugged and rubbery stones of the rest of the musical garden in which we find ourselves. This is a dramatic musical event and one of the highlights of this disc. 

Eric Satie was an early example of what we today would probably call a ‘conceptual’ artist, and his Vexations is a prime example of a beautiful concept which transcends practicality. Consisting of only a few bars of music, Satie casually throws in the instruction that the piece should be repeated 840 times, something which in John Cage’s world première of an actual performance took about 19 hours. I can strongly recommend Alan Marks’ 1987 recording of 70 minutes worth of Vexations on Decca, which has been re-released on the ‘alternative music’ LTM label. Just set the play function to ‘repeat’, and you can have a genuine performance in your own living room. Tzenka Dianova’s version runs to 840 seconds, rather than 840 repeats, respecting the composer’s numerological inclinations in a new interpretation which also means playing the work on a celesta. She chose this instrument for its ‘continuous and meditative sound quality’. This is fair enough, and the instrument is recorded at a suitably ethereal distance. I can’t help feeling that most people will find it hard to escape the ‘Nutcracker Suite’ effect when hearing this, but the music-box feel to the repetition in the music is also heightened through this medium. The tension of waiting for the conclusion to this track will be shared by all who remember Ennio Morricone’s evocative soundtrack to ‘For a Few Dollars More.’ 

All in all this is a very well produced and superbly performed programme of some fascinating music. Of all the pieces, only the First DeConstruction is likely to provide an uneasy feeling of incomprehension. Cage’s own works are models of clarity and structural logic, and stand up very well indeed to the close scrutiny given them by the engineers for this recording. If you like the Sonatas and Interludes in any of their recorded versions then you will like this as well. Erik Satie’s work has been mauled about the most here, but I suspect he would have enjoyed the ways in which they have been presented; and either way, the integrity and quality of the performances is beyond question. I’ve enjoyed this enormously, and hope you will too.

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