Iannis XENAKIS (1922- 2001)
Works for chamber ensemble and voice
Zyia for mezzo, flute and piano (1952) [11.22]
Six Chansons Grècques (1951) [9.42]
Psappha (electro-acoustic version with percussion) (1975/95) [12.26]
Persephassa (version for solo percussionist and electronics) (1969/2003) [28:31]
Angelica Cathariou (mezzo); Cécile Daroux (flute); Daniel Ciampolini (percussion); Nikolaos Samaltanos (piano); Dimitri Vassilikis (piano)
rec. no details given
SAPHIR LVC 1168 [62.14]
The first thing to say is that Cécile Daroux, a supporter and commissioner of Xenakis works, died in 2011, aged just 42. This was before the recording was completed so as Christophe Sirodeau writes as a preface to the notes, “May this recording be considered a moving, bereaved homage from all those who will continue to love and admire her beyond time”. I suppose that similar comments could be made the remarkable Iannis Xenakis, one of the most incredible polymaths of the last century and a totally original musician and composer.
The first work Zyia - an archaic word meaning ‘couple’ - quite surprised me as I realised that until that moment I had only heard the more untamed and later Xenakis. The coupling alluded to here may be the two instruments against the voice. I found it beautiful, colourful and exotic. It uses a sort of recurring eastern European scale. Dating from 1952 it may then have appeared rather ‘difficult’; now it seems to fall into a more general European system of musical thought. The text is by Xenakis himself and is a call to youth to rise and enjoy the spring. Here the spring represents a new life, away from the dictatorship that had affected Greece just after the war. This was the same war in which the composer himself had been much injured both psychologically and physically when the left-wing uprising was brutally suppressed. Yet the work is not always impassioned in an emotional way but stands back and observes its surroundings. Especially memorable is its wild Greek dance in the central section. This is exciting and there’s marvellous demanding work for Daroux’s flute. This is a piece to which I will often return.
There then follows a piece from the preceding year. One can judge easily what a vast jump it was from the Six Chansons Grècques to Zyia. These aphoristic piano miniatures are what the booklet notes curiously describes as ‘demotic rural-style folksongs’. They have harmonic variety but are generally diatonic. The last however comes as a bit of a shock: it is called Soustra and is a mad dance, It’s the sort of thing Skalkottas might have written had he have lived longer than his measly and tragic 45 years. These pieces were composed only a couple of years after his death but it’s odd that they possess French titles such as the beautifully nostalgic ‘Aujourd’hui le ciel est noir’.
Psapphais the Greek for the poetess Sappho (seventh century BC) and is scored for a variety of metallic and wooden, non-pitched percussion instruments. These are here presented in an successful and evocative electro-acoustic version sanctioned by the composer by Daniel Ciampolini himself. To quote Carol Ann Duffy in the recent Penguin translation of Sappho “In Sappho we often find erotic emotion expressed in stylised and ritualised ways”. This piece is like a ritual, in fact there’s nothing here I feel which an ancient Greek would not have comprehended. It is purely rhythm, differing tempi, colours and patterns. Indeed, even in the original, Sapphic poetic rhythms are, I believe, significantly variable and always relevant to the subject matter. I like the quote in the booklet, which sums up what Xenakis was probably attempting “beauty cleansed of an effective dirt, lacking in sentimental barbarism”. Its dancing pulses are a joy and a true connection with ancient times.
Sirodeau says of Persephassa that the music seems to come, not from ancient Greek cultures this time, but “from before the creation of the world” and is described as a ‘frieze’. Persephone is nature’s goddess of the renewal of springtime and there is much that is rudimentary and burgeoning about this extraordinary piece. Originally performed by the six players ‘Le Percussions de Strasbourg’ and premiered in Iran. Ciampolini has created a version for himself only to play by pre-recording five tracks then adding himself live. At almost thirty minutes it seems quite remarkable both musically and technically. When one considers the many complex rhythms and the marvellous and gradual accelerando in the final five minutes the achievement is even more remarkable. Falling into, five sections (unfortunately, although there are silences, they not separately tracked) the fourth has the startling noises of primitive mouth sirens along with the metallic, skin and sometimes wooden instruments. The idea of small metal tubing comes from the simandres of Greek Orthodox churches. This version has received only one performance and that in 2003, according to Ciampolini’s own notes on these percussion pieces. I must add that although I have read the rest of Sirodeau’s notes on this piece I just don’t understand them; never mind.
As I imply, the booklet essay has been oddly translated and some passages I have re-read several times and still don’t grasp. The general gist though is often thought-provoking as is the entire disc of music by this most innovative of minds. Search it out.
Gary Higginson 

Often thought-provoking as is the entire disc of music by this most innovative of minds.