Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

Edgard VARESE [1883-1965]
Arcana; [1925-7]
Octandre [1923];
Offrandes for soprano and chamber orchestra [1921];
Intégrales [1924-5];
Déserts [1950-4]
Maryse Castets, soprano.
Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Christopher Lyndon-Gee
Rec Fitelburg Concert Hall Katowice April-May 2000
NAXOS 8.554820 [70.46]

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Has it ever occurred to you that there is an extraordinary link between the sound worlds of Varèse and Harrison Birtwistle? Both are uncompromising in their use of dissonance, both favour wind instruments and indeed percussion; neither allows any moment of romantic repose. Varèse lived in a wild area of Burgundy and later the Dordogne, Birtwistle lives in central France and both convey a sense of the sheer ancientness of the landscape, the prehistoric cave paintings so common there, a harshness and an unbending reality. Add to that with Varèse a sense of the claustrophobia and bleakness of urban life and you have a unique sound picture enjoyed also by Xenakis and Stockhausen. Varèse seems very much of our time.

Naxos is increasingly moving into some adventurous repertoire. Five works appear on this disc out of the twelve by Varèse that are available .I wonder if there is to be a second volume; alas the company make no commitment. Previous versions of Varèse have been by Kent Nagano on Erato and Chailly on Decca. The latter received better reviews both are good but they are at full price.

Naxos's recordings here are first rate - very upfront and 'in the face'. I don't find this to be a problem, in fact it helps to hear some of the detail. The performances are faultless and beautifully thought out. Christopher Lyndon-Gee may not be a household name but he directs with a surety and authority, which gives all of the performances a forward thrust and direction. The French texts of 'Offrandes' are given with translations in the booklet but are delivered by Maryse Castets with clarity, beauty and sensitivity. The booklet notes are perfectly adequate but, in my view, do not give enough detail on the music itself although Peter Quinn writes succinctly on the composer's life and influences.

Varèse's love of wind and percussion, rather like that of Stravinsky, is reflected in all five works, and it was Varèse who wrote the first of all percussion only pieces 'Ionisation' sadly not recorded here. He enjoys high shrieking clarinet and piccolo and deep tuba and bassoon as a contrast, and the sound of guiro or cymbal or bass drum is never far from the surface. Indeed there is hardly a moment in 'Intégrales' when they are not heard, sometimes on their own. Varèse will often repeat certain passages over and over with a differing percussion backgrounds before moving on to an utterly different sound and rhythm, then he returns to the original but varies the orchestration. Form in a conventional sense does not exist, as each piece creates its own formal world, and although it only needs one bar of Varèse to recognise his style, each piece is quite different and original and exciting for itself. The opening of 'Intégrales' is like no other music and its quasi-jazz sequence at 4'33'' is raw and brash. There is also a rare elegant passage for solo oboe at about 7 minutes in.

The two largest works top and tail the programme. 'Arcana' for a very large orchestra lasts over eighteen minutes, and at the end 'Déserts' for orchestra and tape lasts nearly thirty minutes. Between are the shorter pieces. You might however find it helpful to hear the works in chronological order, beginning with the Debussy influenced 'Offrandes'. There is undoubtedly a development, into a bright harshness and an unemotional landscape in 'Déserts'. This latter is scored for fourteen wind instruments, piano and five percussionists, plus a two-track tape. The works four instrumental sections can be played alone or as here juxtaposed with the electronic interludes. Incredibly Varèse was over seventy when he wrote this monumental and forward-looking work. It received a very mixed reception and is rarely heard in public or on disc. It was the composer's last work and indeed followed a fallow period for Varèse after his move to America. He re-emerged even stronger and more original. Varèse had applied when living in Paris, for funding into the development of electro-acoustic music, he was refused. It was in the 60s in the reign of Pierre Boulez that a different Parisian administration altered its view, by then Varèse was back in America and no longer composing. For many listeners this piece will be the most challenging and therefore it seems good to listen as it were, towards it.

A tremendous disc then, superbly played and needless to say, marvellous value.

Gary Higginson

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