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Edgard VARÈSE (1883-1965)
Amérique (1921) [23’16]
Offrandes (1921) [7’31]
Hyperprism (1923) [3’54]
Octandre (1924) [5’21]
Arcana (1925-27) [18’27]
Densité 21.5 (1936) [3’37]
Ionisation (1929-31) [6’18]
Ecuatorial (1934) [10’58]
Nocturnal (1961) [11’12]
Intégrales (1925) [10’37]
Déserts (1954) [25’36]
Phyllis Bryn-Julson (soprano)
Philippe Pierlot (flute)
Nicholas Isherwood (bass-baritone)
Men’s chorus of Radio France
French National Orchestra/Kent Nagano
Recorded at Radio France, Paris, Nov. 1991, March 1992 and Jan. 1996 (Ecuatorial)
WARNER APEX 2564 62087-2 [63’14 + 68’23]


A few short years ago, Varèse’s short output was covered by basically one recording, Boulez on Sony (then CBS). How times change, for we now have two modern digital two-disc sets re-released in the same month for the buyer to choose from. This Apex set started life as two full price Erato discs and is now at superbudget, so makes for good value. However its rival, the award-winning Decca set from Chailly and the Concertgebouw (and friends) is now, in its new budget-price format, all but unbeatable.

Listening to the two side by side is very instructive. Nagano is good in this repertoire, his forces play well and he has a decent recording. Chailly has state-of-the-art sound (necessary in much of this music) and playing nothing short of miraculous, even in the most dense and complicated passages. His set is also more ‘complete’ with a number of shorter items that are worth having.

Amérique displays the contrast quite well. Nagano is strong on detail, as you would expect, allowing those bizarre and frequent Rite of Spring allusions (near quotations in places) to really register in the texture. The bass flute at the opening, for instance, has a fragment that occurs as a motto throughout, but Chailly sees a bigger, more symphonic picture, so that when that fragment is altered and expanded (as at 14’51) we get a greater sense of urgency and propulsion that help in material that is largely rhythmic rather than melodic. Chailly’s all-important percussion department is also superior, the bass-drums and tam-tam growling menacingly from the depths.

Arcana, in many ways a companion piece to Amérique, gets similar treatment, Chailly’s forces holding the line and painting with bolder brushstrokes. His more flexible treatment allows a few appropriate glimpses of Debussy to shine through – Varèse was a lifelong admirer – but we also get a firmer idea of Varèse’s own influence on future generations, particularly the orchestral works of Xenakis, whose genesis can be detected in passages of Arcana.

All these works require scrupulous attention to the plethora of detail in the scores, and Nagano certainly does that. Octandre and Intégrale never sound simply crude or aggressive, as they so often can, but Chailly is even more attentive to the tiny nuances without losing the explosive element, as the phenomenal opening of Hyperprism amply demonstrates. Chailly even finds warmth in the supposedly bleak depiction of the new atomic age that is behind Desérts; Nagano is also good but the sheer space and amplitude of the Decca recording really pays dividends here.

Solo work is exceptionally fine on the Nagano, with the ultra-experienced Phyllis Bryn-Julson wringing every last ounce of subtlety out of the surreal texts of Offrandes, and Philippe Pierlot’s gorgeous French flute tone ringing out evocatively in Densité 21.5.

As you will have gathered, my opinion is that the Chailly set takes a lot of beating. It’s unfortunate for Nagano and Apex that the Decca double has been re-issued at the same time – if it were still at full price they may have had a chance. But in its new format, and with the extra items (Tuning up, Poème électronique, Dance for Burgess and Un grand sommeil noir) making for two exceptionally well-filled discs, there really is no contest.

Tony Haywood

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