CD review: John Cage Aria from Nicholas Isherwood

First published in the Guardian on 19 June, 2015

American bass-baritone Nicholas Isherwood says it took him a long time to appreciate the music of John Cage, but it doesn’t show. Spanning 43 years of Cage vocal works not included in his Song Books, this collection is affectionate and forthright, meticulous when it matters and generally great fun. Isherwood’s voice is rich, clear and lyrical; the same delivery would suit a disc of American folk ballads. Recorded up-close to catch all its fragile edges, the set opens with the slip-sliding Aria, written for the fearless circus that was Cathy Berberian’s voice and here accompanied by Gianluca Verlingieri’s 2009 reconstruction of the bonkers tape piece Fontana Mix, cow moos and all. The unpublished A Chant with Claps is daft, catchy and joyful. Isherwood accompanies himself on Joyce settings The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs and a violent, claustrophobic little work called Nowth Upon Nacht. Word play abounds in the spry Sonnekus and Eight Whiskus, but his treatment is amusingly dry. The longest work is Ryoanji (1985), named after a Zen garden. Isherwood’s performance is intense and serene, potently atmospheric and never studious.