The French-American composer Edgard Varèse is one of the most interesting figures in 20th century music, who pushed back the boundaries of the possible in creating music which has proved of lasting value. Scores which he completed during the 1920s can often sound much more modern than those written seventy years later.
After his emigration to the United States, Varèse's outlook developed particularly through his association with the International Composers' Guild, and he created music which emphasised his preoccupation with 'modern' sounds. His compositions reflected new priorities, giving emphasis to features such as percussion sounds, rhythmic complexities, extreme dissonance and freedom of form. Later in his career, he was also one of the first composers to show an interest in electronic music; and when tape recorders became available during the 1950s he composed two masterly scores using them: Déserts (with orchestra) and Poème électronique.
In Déserts, however, the use of electronics is not mandatory, and some performers - including Pierre Boulez and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (DG 471 137-2GH) - opt to omit them. Christopher Lyndon-Gee includes them, which is an excellent idea, since it emphasises the special nature of Varèse's strange and compelling vision, of his unique and highly experimental sound-world. However, the quality of sound on the Naxos performance pales in comparison with the more vivid drama achieved by Riccardo Chailly and the Concertgebouw Orchestra (Decca 460 208-2DH2), whose complete Varèse collection is a clear top recommendation and sets the standards by which others are judged.
Perhaps the best performance on this new Naxos disc is that of Arcana. The sound is clear, and the dry acoustic gives the rhythms a biting edge, so that the final climax erupts volcanically before subsiding. There is a good sense of shape to this performance, though the dynamic range might have been wider, as the comparison with Chailly confirms.
Lyndon-Gee conducts with a real insight into the music, its structural strengths particularly gaining from his interpretations, and Maryse Castets is a good soloist in Offrandes. While not a top recommendation, this issue certainly represents a worthwhile addition to the catalogue, extending as it does our understanding of this fascinating composer, who was a true 'craftsman in sound'.