By The Book

Fine record of classical piano modernism on Kristine Scholz Plays Otte and Cage (THANTOSIS PRODUKTION THT9). This German-born pianist has very suitable credentials as she has collaborated with Merce Cunningham, and also studied with German composers (including Aloys Kontarsky, Stockhausen’s pianist) in Hamburg and Cologne.

On today’s record, she plays excerpts from Das Buch der Klänge by Otte, and parts 4-19 of Cage’s Music for Piano. I never knew these two composers had a connection, but it seems they met at Yale University in the 1950s, and a bit later on became good friends. One place where they bonded was at the festivals run by Otte when he was music director of Radio Bremen. Matter of fact Scholz has also participated at Pro Musica Antiqua / Pro Musica Nova in her time. I think Das Buch der Klänge (The Book Of Sounds) may have been composed in the 1980s – Otte himself recorded a version in 1983, although there’s also Herbert Henck’s version on ECM (from 2000). Some critics regard it as a determinedly anti-avant-garde piece of work, as the music is quite accessible, and for some detractors it veers close to offering a wispy New Age serenity. It might be that rather than “minimalism” as a purist would understand it, Otte was embracing simplicity; one listener finds his repetitions and patterns not far apart from Steve Reich, except lacking in force. According to the press notes, Otte wanted to “bring sound closer to the listener” and allow them to “stay in, rest in, and live with sound”. I never heard any other recorded versions for comparison, but Kristine Scholz’s work here on four selected chapters from the 12-movement work certainly makes the music seem very approachable; no dissonances or jarring sounds, but instead pleasing major chords, a sedate movement, lots of melody and repetition, and oodles of white space to get lost inside.

Cage’s Music For Piano was likewise scored in multiple parts – 84 in all. It was written between 1952 and 1956, at a time when he was casting the I Ching to assist him with determining how many notes to put on the page, and applied similar rules to the choice of clefs, accidentals, and technique. He was looking very closely at glitches on the surface of a piece of paper, and applying his fountain pen whenever he found one, later converting these random dots into notes by overlaying a piece of tracing paper. However, all the details of interpretation – dynamics, tempi, character, quality of sound – are entirely in the hands of the musician who elects to play it. Music For Piano is thus one of these benchmark works where Cage hands over a large amount of creative decision-making to the player. There’s also something very porous about the entire structure; parts 4-19 were completed in 1953, and the 16-page score included instructions indicating it can be performed as separate pieces; or as one whole work; or even alongside parts 21-84, if desired. I mention all this to highlight how productive a Cage work can be; it’s almost like he’s a precision engineer, building separate modular parts to an aeroplane, which can be assembled in many different ways to build many different vehicles, all of which work independent of each other. Kristine Scholz opts for playing parts 4-19 on this recording, turning in 19:19 minutes of very precise and considered work. You get the impression she’s paying very close attention to the score, but at the same time she’s striving to bring the inherent melodies to the surface; this might be what lends her performance the sense of “distinct forward-movement”, according to the press. She also holds down the damper pedal for the whole piece, flying in the face of what of a “normal” classical musician would do, to produce that calming and meditative sound.

In her interpretations of both these works, Kristine Scholz is subtly emphasising melodic aspects of the music, a very suitable altruistic approach that makes these potentially severe and minimal works much more accessible to a wider audience. Mats Persson, her friend and collaborator since 1969, provided the informative booklet notes, which include very good contextual histories of both composers, directly relevant to the works. From 4th April 2022.