Edgard Varèse: Orchestral Works 2

Watts, Grochowska, Bloch; Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra/Lyndon-Gee (Naxos 8.557882)

7 July 2008 4.5 stars

Varese: Orchestral Works 2In his otherwise fairly riveting book on (some types of) twentieth century music, The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross asserts rather rashly of the music of Edgard Varèse that it has 'no past, no future.' Nothing could be further from the truth.

The composer's hyperfuturist, anti-symphonic works can be seen to have anticipated whole swathes of subsequent musical styles. From the rather inevitable abuse heard on innumerable sci-fi soundtracks of the ondes martenot and the theremin, two instruments pioneered by Varèse, to the vastly expanded percussion ensembles of much modern orchestral music and the non-developmental, collage-based impulse that dominates the contemporary attitude to the management of musical material in all genres, echoes of this proto-Boulezian figure reverberate still.

If a past needs to be identified, the early brutal ballet scores of Stravinsky immediately come to mind. In other respects – the very distinctive destitution of harmony in the French composer's music comes to mind – he stands rather alone for sure, at least in the context of art music. But his music's searing cry on behalf and in place of unheard new worlds ended up heralding a similar motivation and manner of expression in a great deal of music that came after.

In terms of reception history of course Varèse has proved hard to assimilate into the canon. His music can appear harsh and austere, with its violent forcing together and then breaking apart of distinct panels of material, and its indifference to pitch (not only is harmony surplus, but quite often the distinct notes of melodic units or figures seem to matter less than their rhythm and their intensity of articulation). And this impression of austerity is probably justified. Most forms of expression normally open to performers are basically absent from the music of Varèse. Yet if musicians bring to bear on the scores the sort of passionate and highly informed advocacy other composers can take for granted, this music can really astonish. Boulez managed this feat in the seventies and eighties with his benchmark Sony recordings of Varèse's music, and recently Christopher Lyndon-Gee, with the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, has gifted us his own astonishing interpretations of these quite peculiar works. A high quality disc of Varèse works (featuring Arcana, Intégrales and Déserts) performed by Lyndon-Gee and the PNRSO was released on Naxos a couple of years ago. Now this new release by the same personnel, with help from a large cast of additional musicians, adds to the earlier repertoire with the inclusion of such large-scale works as the rarely heard original version of Amériques (requiring about 155 players!), Équatorial, and Nocturnal.

These works are all performed here with a stunning level of commitment, though it must be said Amériques seems now to have much greater impact and integrity as a composition than the other two. It is an exhilarating statement of what orchestral music in the 1920s was capable of, and its very forceful mode of fractured expression is understood keenly by the conductor, who imbues his account with a strong sense of graceless mediation. Solo lines are all well taken too; each player seems clearly aware of their place in the bigger picture the conductor is carving out. Amériques is highly allusive, with Le Sacre hovering within and without as both a general inspiration (the polyrhythms, the dissonant modality, the percussive scoring), and as a specific point of reference (the recurring solo flute figure, which often arrives quite suddenly out of busy textures, suggests the famous solo clarinet pentatonic melody of Stravinsky's masterpiece). In this performance, Varèse's piece comes across as every bit as powerfully as Le Sacre.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said of Équatorial, which does sound much better in this context than it did at last year's Proms when it was paired with Ives' Fourth Symphony it must be said, but still appears rather kitschy and dated. The ondes martenot is very much to the fore of the sound (it always seems to get buried in live settings), to the performance's credit, but the Koyaanisqatsi-like, mock-portentous parts for six bass voices do sound rather silly, notwithstanding the singers' firm tone, precise pitching and clear diction. The ondes can't help but feel just a little bit like its signalling danger or exotica on an episode of Star Trek, and the whole package is a bit glibly dramatic, as if it thought itself entirely cutting edge and admonitory (though of course it was cutting edge in one sense – it was the first piece of Western art music to combine electronic instruments with acoustic ones). The piece is not without its merits however; adventurous and flexible voice writing (shouting, speaking, Sprechstimme, and quarter tones are all called for), occasionally thrilling electronic glissandi, and the sympathetic combination of piano, electronic organ, and ondes martenot producing some wonderful colours mean that the performers have much to work with, and indeed their reading certainly provokes a sense of powerful sense of dread and otherworldliness from time to time.

The criticisms I made of Équatorial also apply to Nocturnal, the two works being closely related in spirit, having similar proportions (about ten minutes each), vocal writing (nonsense syllables are again used) and scoring (bass voices, percussion including piano). The primary differences are in the exclusion of the ondes and the inclusion of a soprano voice in Nocturnal, and in that piece's use of fragments in English from the writings of Anaïs Nin. Again though the male voices express a quite unconvincing emotional tenor of pseudo-primitive incantations, Nocturnal can boast a soprano, Elisabeth Watts, in imperious and distressing form. As soon as she enters all focus switches to her, and though the piece can boast of some exciting and typically abrasive instrumental writing, the listener's attention will always be on her overwrought yet carefully managed emoting. The performance expresses well the night, and the stark isolation of some people's existence, and Watts' powerful display of hopeless melodrama, pitched somewhere between the intimacy of Lieder and the wildness of Wagner, lies at the heart of that success.     

Like Webern, Varèse's extant oeuvre of compositions is relatively limited, so most releases balance substantial works with shorter chamber compositions and any other curios available. In this instance we get a fascinating and rare glimpse of the Varèse that had much of Europe (including Debussy, Strauss, Apollinaire, Roussel, Busoni, and Picasso) in a fuss, as his wonderfully laconic, Debussy-inspired Un grand Sommeil noir for soprano and piano is included. This last item is sung with just the right mix of restraint and measured intensity by Elisabeth Watts, with Lyndon-Gee providing careful yet powerful accompaniment. He clearly relishes the impressionist/expressionist melange of his piano part.

In addition, Dance for Burgess (which contains unlikely gestures towards Broadway, though the composer's high seriousness wins through), Tuning Up (again the composer can be heard quashing the apparently frivolous inspiration with his mini-dialectic of symphonic potential), and Hyperprism (a short piece for winds and percussion that could stand as an exemplum of the composer's way of building up musical form through interpenetrating sound masses) are also included. These three pieces are performed uniformly well, with the precision and force of Hyperprism being especially impressive.

The disc begins with the three more substantial items already mentioned before moving on to the smaller pieces, and as a programme this approach works well – the potpourri nature of the release lends itself nicely to such a dynamic of top-heavy engagement. After the coruscating thrill of Amériques, the shorter pieces offer both a contrast of duration and substance, and also of course of ensemble. The disc ends with two fascinating and utterly convincing performances of two of Varèse's more famous chamber works, Density 21.5 and Ionisation. Maria Grochowska on solo flute gives an intense rendition of the first of these works that is heavy on expressive vibrato and subtly dramatic pacing, without ever sacrificing the essentially abstract nature of the piece. Ionisation, that most fearless of interwar instrumental works, is just as good, with the thirteen percussionists thrilling with the precision and penetration of their playing.

A real sense of momentum pervades this performance; the final, Les Noces echoing stretching out of density opens up a cavern of sound where tones vibrate with spectral luxuriance, and sound is given the opportunity to die its own natural death. The continual variations of the opening militaristic motif that occur throughout the performance enrich every new context in which they appear, and the recurring siren calls (almost as omnipresent in the composer's music as the motoric Neu!  beat was in that band's work) likewise alert the listener to the sheer excitement of what he or she is hearing. The dynamics and volume of this performance are perfectly judged too, with every little nuance and gesture shining through Varèse's polydirectional score. Ionisation provides the disc with a thrilling end, and proves once more the potentially rousing expressivity of music that actually shuns most normal codes of musical expression.

By Stephen Graham