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Iannis XENAKIS (1922-2001)
Works for Orchestra, Vol. IV: Erikhthon (1974) [17:21]*, Ata (1987) [14:39], Akrata (1965) [10’30"], Krinoïdi (1991) [10’08"]*.
Hiroaki Ooï (piano)
Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg/Arturo Tamayo
Recorded June 2004 Luxembourg Conservatoire. DDD.
*Premiere recording.

TIMPANI 1C1084 [53:08]

In this loud and brawling fourth volume of works by Iannis Xenakis, the storm begins with his extraordinary Erikhthon (a piano concerto in all but name), inexplicably receiving its first recording despite being composed in 1974. (What on earth has anyone been waiting for?) This is all thanks to Hiroaki Ooï, Arturo Tamayo and the excellent Luxembourg ensemble for getting their white-hot program underway presented with such bracing confidence. With a title that is loosely translated as "the force of the earth," this is a ferocious howl of a piece that starts off rather innocuously, with the pianist strutting around while the orchestra delivers long, unison notes. But soon the entire ensemble is caught up in enormous waves – huge, dramatic glissandi up and down, almost like sirens – with the piano in furious lines up and down the keyboard, interweaving with the orchestra. The program notes describe the piece as "a hurricane in music," a characterization that could well apply to the CD as a whole.

The composer’s instructions are to play the work "without taking another breath," and that illusion is certainly maintained in the seventeen minutes here – I felt winded after just a single hearing. Tamayo and the orchestra absolutely outdo themselves portraying "a unified, monolithic explosion…a colossal manifestation of joyful, controlled frenzy, of a healthy athletic euphoria, a prodigious and highly vegetal burst of vigour," to extract an exciting portion of Harry Halbreich’s notes, until the work ends "…interrupted in mid gallop, at the peak of a wave, as if sliced by a knife." I must say that this is not a work to explore when one is in the mood for say, the velvet austerity of Arvo Pärt. Rather, it is a quarter-hour of compressed energy released in a violent spurt, and will no doubt leave the listener feeling similarly.

The remainder of the disc is only marginally less energetic. Ata contains densely crunchy chords and fluctuating meters, sort of like a more maniacal Messiaen, with obsessively repeated clouds of swirling strings and brass. It concludes with a barrage of low chords, and is also sensationally performed by the Luxembourg ensemble. Akrata, for brass alone, comes as something of a break, but only somewhat. Its explosive phrases are separated by pauses, again reminding me of the blocks that Messiaen favored.

Krinoïdi (also receiving its premiere recording) opens with a dissonant, sarcastic woodwind fanfare that could almost be from Petrouchka, but otherwise bears little resemblance to Stravinsky’s ballet. Here the composer writes in long, deliberate brushstrokes that carry the same forceful aural stamp as the other works here. It, too, is an exhilarating ride, boldly and imaginatively scored, and concludes a program that is definitely not for those wanting shy or introverted music.

One small quibble with Mr. Halbreich’s otherwise excellent notes: his meticulous bar line citations are admirable but would seem to be of little use to most listeners here, unless one is privileged to be using a score, and I doubt that many patrons have the music to Erikhthon in their personal libraries. An approximate time reference (i.e., "about five minutes in," "at roughly ten minutes") might have been more helpful. But this is carping in a release that will surely give tons of pleasure to Xenakis fans, or anyone whose idea of a good time is being aurally thrashed around by a composer who knows how to extract the maximum from a large orchestra.

As implied earlier, the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg plays with great abandon, totally communicating Xenakis’s piercing ideas, and for at least two of the works here there is currently no competition in the catalogue. Timpani provides superb sound that will impress everyone within a two-kilometer radius of your home if you wish, and even the cover art continues the theme, with a handsome photograph of the composer, whose hair appears to be on fire, trailing flames.

Bruce Hodges


NOTE: For the curious, an article in French about the composer, with a page from Erikhthon:

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