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Edgard VARESE (1883-1965)
Orchestral Works 2
Amériques (original version 1921) [23:55]
Ecuatorial (1932-34) [10:27]
Nocturnal (1961) [9:24]
Dance for Burgess (1949) [1:44]
Tuning Up (1947) [4:50]
Hyperprism (1922-23) [3:48]
Un grand Sommeil noir (1906) [2:59]
Density 21.5 (1936) [4:43]
Ionisation (1929-31) [5:24]
Elizabeth Watts (soprano); Maria Grichiwska (flute); Thomas Bloch (ondes martenot); Men’s Voices of Camerata Silesia, Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra/Christopher Lyndon-Gee (piano and conductor)
rec. Sept, November 2005, Grzegorz Fitelberg Hall, Katowice, Poland. DDD
NAXOS 8.557882 [67:14]
Experience Classicsonline

Varèse’s music is powerful and modernist, even when heard some forty years after the composer’s death. This disc is a true delight, containing a range of works composed from 1906 to 1961. The second volume in Naxos’s series of Varese Orchestral Works, the disc also contains solos, such as Density 21.5 for flute, and choral works, such as Ecuatorial.
The opening work is Amériques, heard here in its original 1921 version, for full orchestra. This is an earthy performance, which brings to life Varese’s vivid description of the New World. Varèse was born in France, but moved to the United States in 1915. His early European compositions were burned in a fire, and Amériques was the first of his new works. A substantial oeuvre lasting almost 25 minutes, the work possesses a strong sense of the new, a fresh start, and the slight unease that comes with unfamiliar territory. Varèse makes use of exotic instruments, such as the alto flute, sirens and a vast array of percussion to create a distinct sound world. His music is full of almost pagan energy; there are parallels here with The Rite of Spring, tied with an astounding forward-looking modernism, which makes the music sound contemporary even now. This is an incredible work, performed well with raw energy and a sense of conviction.
Varèse’s interest in new sounds gained him a reputation as being ‘the father of electronic music’. Composed for two Ondes Martenot, bass voices and ensemble, Ecuatorial was completed in 1934 and is thought to be the first work ever written to combine live and electronic instruments. This curious work possesses its own unusual sound-world - how often does one encounter two Ondes Martenot? - with a feeling of tribal humanism. The vocal writing depicts a savage scene of human sacrifice, using an array of unusual techniques which combine with the modernist sounds of the Ondes Martenot and electronic organ to give the feel of an unusual and slightly intimidating place. Use of percussion and brass add strength to the orchestration, and the juxtaposition of microtonal sounds with more ‘normal’ harmonies creates a thrilling tension in the work.
Nocturnal has a similarly tribal feel, although the soprano soloist gives a more western feel to the work. The texts were originally planned, like Ecuatorial, to come from ancient civilisations, but Varèse finally settled on English texts by Anaïs Nin alongside nonsense sounds which Varèse created himself. Nocturnal was first heard, incomplete, in 1961 for a Composer Portrait concert, and the work was never finished, despite the creation of numerous sketches. The version heard here was completed by Chou Wen-Chung in 1969 from the composer’s notes and sketches.
Dance for Burgess is a brief work, lasting less than two minutes, and was composed as a gesture of friendship to Burgess Meredith, for a Broadway musical called Happy as Larry. Making use of swing and jazz styles, the work retains Varèse’s individuality while demonstrating his skills as a composer.
The 1947 work for large orchestra, entitled Tuning Up, was composed for Boris Morros, who was producing a film called Carnegie Hall. The idea was for a parody work for the New York Philharmonic and Stokowski, but Varèse took the piece seriously and was offended at the lack of respect the piece received during rehearsals. A brilliant work, however, it contains fragments of works by Varèse and others, interspersed with an underlying tuning note A.
Hyperprism is one of Varèse’s better known works, scored for nine wind instruments and nine percussion and completed in 1923. It caused a riot at its premiere, despite its brevity - it is less than four minutes long - but was the first of Varèse’s works to be published.
The earliest of Varèse’s surviving works, Un grand Sommeil noir for soprano and piano is a setting of a Paul Verlaine text, composed in 1906. The haunting melody lines and largely consonant harmonies are far removed from the biting modernism of Amériques. This beautiful work is given an excellent performance here by Elizabeth Watts and Christopher Lyndon-Gee.
Density 21.5 is one of the seminal twentieth-century works for flute, and is thought to be the first use of key clicks in the flute repertoire. Composed for Barrère’s platinum flute, the title comes from the density of platinum and the work seeks to demonstrate the properties of that metal in flute making. This performance by Maria Grochowska is considered and convincing, combining expression with a sense of drama.
Ionisation uses thirteen percussion (including sirens) and piano and demonstrates Varèse’s use of rhythm. He creates textures, tensions and resolutions in a way one would not immediately associate with percussion music, and despite the lack of pitched material the overall effect is startlingly melodic.
This is an excellent disc, which serves as a welcome introduction to the work of this largely under-valued composer. Varèse’s music divulges a creative genius who was undoubtedly a long way ahead of his time, and one can only listen in awe at his work. The performances here are entirely convincing and manage to encapsulate the raw humanistic elements in the music. At the price of a Naxos disc, this is unmissable.
Carla Rees

see also review by Dan Morgan


Note from Paul Serotsky

Both Dan Morgan and Carla Rees, in their reviews of Vol. 2 of the Naxos series of Varese orchestral works, make the same small but significant error (possibly copied from the CD booklet?). "Ionisation" is not for 13 percussion (instruments), but for 37 percussion played by 13 percussionists.

Incidentally, what a superb little piece it is - and all the more so because Varese did not rest content with a mere rhapsody of "sound effects", but cast it in what amounts to an "atonal" sonata form. Now, that's what I call "neat"!


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