The portrait of John Bull on the cover of this two-CD U.S. release gives an idea for the uninitiated of what to expect from the composer's music: it's intense, single-minded, and even a bit demonic (although the hourglass topped with a skull with a bone in its mouth is apparently an alchemical symbol). Bull was, in the words of an unidentified writer quoted by harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, "the Liszt of the virginals." The most immediately apparent feature of his music is extreme virtuosity, on display especially in the mind-boggling set of variations entitled Walsingham (CD 1, track 8) and in the galliards of the pavan-galliard pairs. But the opposite pole in Bull's style exerts just as strong a pull: he is fascinated by strict polyphony by what would be called harmonic progressions, and by the close study of the implications contained within small musical units. As spectacular in their way as the keyboard fireworks are, the three separate settings of a tune called Why Ask You? on CD 2 are marvelous explorations of compressed musical gestures.
John Cage’s innovative work and unorthodox ideas profoundly affected Western music during the latter half of the 20th century, and this second of two volumes (volume 1 can be heard on Naxos 8.559773) concludes Katrin Zenz’s survey of his complete works for flute. The earlier chromatic compositions include an astonishing variety of playing techniques and a bewildering rhythmic complexity, while the elements of chance in the later works result in music that is always undergoing kaleidoscopic processes at once arbitrary and intensely focussed in form and expression.
This first volume of John Cage’s complete works for flute spans a fifty year period, from the Three Pieces for Flute Duet of 1935—deft studies in chromatic writing—to the 1984 Ryoanji, which involves the use of pre-recorded flutes and percussion with resultant diverse and intricate textures. Two is the first of Cage’s important ‘number’ series and is edgily ruminative, while Music for Two, written for any combination of the 17 different instrumental ‘parts without scores’ provided by the composer, is heard in an arrangement described by Katrin Zenz as a ‘new piece for flute and piano’.
The 35th volume in Mode's Complete John Cage Edition is also the second release in Ulrich Krieger's series of interpretations for solo saxophone and saxophones with other instruments. Ensemble pieces of comparatively large dimensions were gathered on A Cage of Saxophones: Vol. 1, so this follow-up disc presents pieces for smaller combinations and solos, though with no less originality or charm.
The complete Works for Piano and Orchestra, with Rafael Orozco playing the extraordinarily demanding piano score, which Serge; with his huge, slender, nimble fingers tended to compose to impress people and make many back away, is more than merely admirable when combined with Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, under the Direction of Edo De Waart.