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Iannis XENAKIS (1922 – 2001)
Synaphaï (1969)a
Horos (1986)
Eridanos (1972)
Kyania (1990)
Hiroaki Ooï (piano)a;
Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg/Arturo Tamayo
rec. Conservatoire, Luxembourg, March, May 2002
TIMPANI 1C1068 [64:16]

The works recorded here span thirty years of Xenakis’s composing career. Undoubtedly they share many characteristics though they also clearly illustrate his progress over the years. Common to all these pieces is, among other qualities, their monolithic structure made of huge blocks of sounds tossed against each other. These suggest, to the present writer at least, inimical, inhuman, craggy and rugged landscapes of terrifying power. Xenakis’s orchestral music often makes its point with densely scored blocks in remorseless collision and harshly driven by cyclopean strength. All four pieces evoke massive, sun-drenched rocky outcrops, such as may be found, say, in Northern Africa or in other desolate places around the world. Synaphaï (its title means ‘contiguities’ or ‘relationships’) is no exception, though the basic principle of the piece, Xenakis’s first concertante work for piano and orchestra, is to integrate the incredibly difficult piano part (the music is spread out onto ten staves) into the densely structured fabric. The piano, however, has moments of its own in the form of two cadenza-like passages, the second of which is partly improvised. Also fairly prominent in this comparatively early work, is the recurring use of glissandi, a typical feature in Xenakis’s early music. This, however, is no traditional concerto but rather the composer’s own approach to a traditional musical genre which he models according to his own idiosyncratic vision. But, in the final analysis, the result is not unlike that of the other pieces recorded here.

Eridanos, scored for strings and eight brass instruments (neither woodwinds nor percussion), is a concise, massive monolith of considerable power and energy. The title refers to the name of a river once running through Athens and of a constellation of the Southern Hemisphere, meaning quarrelsome, which at least gives some idea of the violent nature of much of the music. The composer also mentions that the idea was that of a DNA cell consisting of four elements: H(ydrogen), O(xygen), C(arbon) and P(hosphorus) which are represented by groups of fixed, but mutable intervals. H and O are played by the strings, C and P by the brass.

Horos (the Greek word meaning marker or reference point as in ‘orology’), composed in 1986, is fully representative of Xenakis’s late orchestral music. Now, compact and massive layers of sounds move in closer homophony and are supported by huge ostinatos. Another new feature appearing here – and in marked contrast with many earlier works – is the conspicuous absence or, at least, rarity of glissandos.

Kyania (same etymological root as cyanide), scored for large orchestra with an important piano part but without percussion, is by far the most substantial work here, i.e. in terms of overall duration and also of structural complexity. It is – again – a massive structure, often densely, thickly scored and consistently based on big clusters. The music moves on in a fairly moderate tempo but with considerable strength, again suggesting implacably striding giants. The music eventually fades away mysteriously on a last long-held cluster.

Xenakis’s music has at times been blamed for being rather single-minded, but these four works from different periods of the composer’s creative life clearly illustrate the variety of his approach over the years. As such, the present release is, to my mind, the best possible introduction to Xenakis’s highly personal sound world. Performances cannot be bettered (Arturo Tamayo and the Luxembourg orchestra deserve all praise for their commitment and physical endurance in these taxing works) and the recording is simply stunning. Hard stuff, no doubt, but gripping all the same.

Hubert Culot

Simply stunning. Hard stuff but gripping … the best possible introduction to Xenakis … see Full Review


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