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Edgar VARÈSE (1883-1965)
Boulez Conducts Varèse

Amériques (1921), Arcana (1925-27), Ionisation (1929-31), Déserts (1949-54)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Pierre Boulez
Recorded in Orchestra Hall, Chicago on 12/1995 (Amériques/Ionisation) and 12/1996 (Arcana/Déserts)
DG 471 137-2 [68.22], Full price
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Pierre Boulez has had a long association with Varèse's music so it is not surprising that this new disc should be as compelling as it is. Described by Boulez as an 'outsider' and a 'loner' (and even more memorably as a 'skeleton from a junk shop'), Varèse's music empties concert halls less now than it once did. Rightly so, for his music has genuine greatness - a sense of pulse and rhythm few modern composers after Varèse have really equalled. Except for Déserts, all of the works on this disc come from Varèse's '20s period - a time of extreme dissonance in his scoring and graphic musical imagery (such as the skyscraper allusions in Amériques with the echo of whistles and sirens).

Desérts, Varèse's reflection on the new, uses electronic techniques (not, it has to be admitted, with the seamlessness that was to later become the norm) - the tape interpolated into a composition for wind, percussion and piano. Boulez, who gave the work its premiere in Paris in 1954, is masterly at variegating the colours of the score, the timbres of woodwind against percussion (long dissonant lines versus the symbiotic pattering and snaring of the percussion) as well sustained as it can be. The performance does have ferocity - but also enormous clarity. The sense of open and confined spaces being part of the musical landscape are second nature to Boulez and the virtuoso Chicago players.

Clarity is the keyword when describing the remaining performances on this disc. Ionisation is almost primeval in its percussiveness - wedges of melody heard but disseminated. There is the hint of a march, the energy of a bubbling cauldron about to erupt and the intricate rhythms that criss-cross like the tracks of a railway junction. Arcana, with its palpable sense of people and traffic inter-relating, has enormous physicality in Boulez's hands. The large orchestra is manipulated this way and that with thrilling immediacy. Amériques is given a blazing performance - particularly in the use of brass (although this is the reduced score, not the original one for 29 instruments). As a picture of Manhattan it is both aggressive and static - a picture as raw in the blocks of sound it conveys as the streamlined steeliness of the skyscrapers the sound mimics.

As always with Boulez there is sometimes a sense that spontaneity is sidelined and all of these performances are precise to the point of angularity. If Chailly gets a warmer, perhaps more claustrophobic sense of spatial descriptiveness Boulez tends to strip the music to minimalist clusters of density - more sparse, more knife-edge in its violence. I would not be happy without either view so cannot recommend one set over the other. Chailly has, of course, recorded the complete works in magnificent performances - but Boulez's single disc is self-recommending. Fortunately, both conductors have great orchestras who play this music as if it is second nature. And both recordings are exemplary.

Marc Bridle

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