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Horatiu RADULESCU (b. 1942)
Lao Tzu Sonatas

"being and non-being create each other" Second Piano Sonata Op. 82 (1991)
"you will endure forever" Third Piano Sonata Op. 86 (1992/9)
"like a well … older than God" Fourth Piano Sonata Op. 92 (1993)
Ortwin Stürmer (piano)
rec. 14/15 April, 22 July 2002, Studio 2 des Bayerischen Rundfunks München. DDD
CPO 999 880-2 [55'45]

This is definitely one of those instances where one should listen to the music first before attempting the liner notes. Initial acquaintance with the theoretical basis of Radulescu’s compositional techniques is off-putting enough and there are also mystical titles to consider. Or perhaps not; Radulescu’s religious/spiritual leanings are hardly explained in the notes.

Starting, then, by thinking of twentieth-century piano music, and the place of these sonatas within the canon, one finds a distinctive sound-world akin to that of Messiaen, especially in the 4th Sonata. There is a distant relationship with Scriabin and perhaps Ligeti at times. Considering the apparently forbidding nature of the theory, the music is surprisingly simple, certainly far less complex than that of those composers.

The trademarks of Radulescu’s style in these piano sonatas are the use of brightly dissonant intervals derived from his trademark ‘musical spectra’, themes based on folk-melodies, widely-spaced writing and obsessive repetition, all used in various combinations and juxtapositions. Reluctant as I am to go into the technicalities, it is necessary to say that Radulescu’s spectra are systems of pitches based on a fundamental note and intervals constructed from its harmonics. The argument is that this returns music to its roots in acoustics enabling a response to the physicality of sound. To put this principle into practice strictly requires instruments that are able to play the pitches equivalent to the harmonics of a given note, and Radulescu has accordingly written pieces for such combinations as nine orchestras ("Wild Incantesimo") and 40 flautists playing 72 flutes ("Byzantine Bells"). A piano in equal temperament doesn’t work in this way and Radulescu has had to compromise to compose for the instrument by constructing chords approximating to the pitches of the harmonic series.

Using the Third Sonata as an example of the contrasts throughout, the translucent, spectrally-based harmonies of the first movement are followed by sonorously funereal textures over repeated notes in the bass. Considering the abstruse theoretical basis of the compositional technique, it is surprising how easy it is to visualise images when listening; this second movements conjures up Mussorgsky’s ox-cart. The third movement is an example of Radulescu’s use of folk tunes; a twisting improvisatory melody in the middle register is accompanied by fourths above, the pedal creating a luminous sound. The final two movements present aspects of the technique in juxtaposition rather than ensemble.

Radulescu’s sound-world, expertly presented by the dedicatee Ortwin Stürmer in some good engineering, is certainly unique. From somewhat unpromising beginnings, I was drawn into the music as if on a voyage of discovery. The exploration of each successive movement was exciting, though I will wait a while before returning to the CD. Although the normally tuned piano is not entirely compatible with Radulescu’s aims, the experience of listening was enough to encourage me to explore his more dedicated works. Those 72 flutes beckon!

Roger Blackburn

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