> XENAKIS Works for large Orchestra [TH]: Classical Reviews- June 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Iannis XENAKIS (1922-2001) Works for large orchestra Volume 1Aïs for baritone, solo percussion and orchestra (1980) [17.29] Tracées (1987) [5.11] Empreintes (1975) [10.27] Noomena (1974) [12.33] Roáï (1991) [12.35]
Spyros Sakkas (baritone), Béatrice Daudin (percussion solo) Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra Arturo Tamayo Recorded in Luxembourg Conservatoire, April, 2000 DDD
TIMPANI 1C1057 [59.02]


Iannis XENAKIS (1922-2001) Works for large orchestra Volume 2
(1977) [15.51] Shaar (1983) [13.11] Lichens (1983) [16.15] Antikhthon (1971) [17.34]
Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra
Arturo Tamayo Recorded in Luxembourg Conservatoire, March and April, 2001 DDD
TIMPANI 1C1062 [63.14] [TH]

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Having been greatly impressed with a number of enterprising Timpani releases recently, I have to say that these two Xenakis discs top the lot; they are issues of real importance, and deserve the widest possible success.

It is nothing short of scandalous that the orchestral output of one of the towering figures of late 20th Century music should be so under-represented in the record catalogue. Well over half of his major works have still to be recorded, and many of the items on these excellent discs are premieres. It has to be stressed that none of the pieces are an easy listen, but repeated hearings will pay dividends.

Knowing of Xenakis as a pioneer in the field of tape and electronics, one of the great joys of these works was, for me, the fact that we are experiencing ‘proper’ instrumentalists, a real live orchestra. Some of the extraordinary sonorities he creates are nothing short of amazing, and it’s made all the more so by knowing it’s all coming from a good old-fashioned symphony orchestra.

Xenakis openly acknowledged the influence of two major figures in his formative years, the architect Le Corbusier, and the pioneering modernist composer Edgard Varèse. His traumatic wartime experiences also had a lasting effect on his artistic outlook, and the sheer violence unleashed in a lot of these pieces probably reflects those lingering memories.

Death is at the very centre of the opening item of Volume 1, his setting of fragments from Homer, entitled Aïs (Track 1). This is not word-setting in a conventional sense, and one is best prepared by imagining a cross between Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King, and Berio’s Sequenza III for voice. It’s a stunning, harrowing journey, the baritone and aggressive solo percussionist taking us into a world where the imagination runs riot. Lines such as “..into the pit; the blood was flowing like black clouds, and from the depths gathered the souls of the definitely dead”, are not so much set, as acted out for us, with the singer called upon to chant, howl and shriek like a wounded animal. In a sense, the spiritual ancestry can be traced further back to Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, where the tortured individual’s sprechtstimme cries represent, like Xenakis’s, a plea for understanding in a violent, uncaring world. If we remember the composer’s harrowing rescue by his father during a bombing raid, when he was found amongst a pile of corpses and carrying horrific injuries, the lines quoted above have special resonance. The dedicatee, Spyros Sakkas, performs with unflinching professionalism and amazing musicianship.

The other works on the first disc are equally impressive, and in their own way just as powerful. All of them explore his fascination with tone-clusters, and while this inevitably makes one draw parallels with Ligeti (particularly Atmospheres) and Penderecki (Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima), there is again an undercurrent of unease which sets them apart. Noomena (Track 4) I found to be the most engrossing, where Xenakis explores the idea of a single pitch being transformed and developed by pure instrumental sonority, shifting its shape and texture whilst remaining identifiable as that one note.

All in all, I would rate these two discs as maybe the most important for some years. Xenakis’s chamber, choral and instrumental works have long been available, but Timpani have really put us in their debt by allowing us to share another facet of this iconoclastic musician’s output. The playing is truly outstanding, with orchestra, soloists and conductor showing great commitment and expertise, given what they are called upon to do at times. The recording is first-rate, and there are authoritative notes from Nouritza Matossian, a leading authority on the composer.

Very highly recommended, especially to those with a sense of adventure, and maybe a strong stomach.

Tony Haywood

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