Music and Arts' John Cage: Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano featuring pianist Julie Steinberg has the benefit of being performed on an "original instrument," a nine-foot Steinway "O" concert grand of the kind used by Maro Ajemian in the earliest performances of the work. The producer/engineer of this disc, Maggi Payne, is herself a composer, and has gone out of her way to make every tiny nuance of this instrument ring true. More of Cage's preparation may be heard in this recording of the Sonatas and Interludes than in any other, down to the ringing, ethereal sounds that hang in the air long after a given note is struck.
Steinberg's no-nonsense, classical conception of the piece suits it well. While the "sonatas" do not entertain conventional classical sonata form, many of the phrases are laid out in haiku-like divisions of beats, for example 14 beats followed by 11 and then 14 more. Most often, this subtle structural component becomes invisible in recordings, masked by the sonic complexity of the preparation, although they become obvious if one is following the work with the score in hand. In Steinberg's recording, however, these phrases are audible, thanks to her even-handedness of tempo and touch. This is one aspect of Steinberg's Sonatas and Interludes that shares common ground with the now ancient Maro Ajemian recordings that others simply do not match.
It is hard to say that one recording of any Cage work that contains as many variables as does the Sonatas and Interludes is intrinsically "better" than another, as the results tend to be so different. Measured by the yardstick of representing both what is in John Cage's score and the sound of the prepared piano itself, there truly is no recorded option preferable to Music and Arts' John Cage: Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano. This is the original release of the 1996 recording, which has gone out of print; in 2004 John Cage: Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano was reissued with a new cover as Music & Arts 4937.