Iannis Xenakis had a natural affinity for numbers and mathematical
concepts. His relationships with musical instruments were a
little more complex. His works for solo instruments usually
fit under the fingers, but their idiomatic qualities are rarely
based on a deep understanding of the repertoire. Xenakis also
had a perverse interest in creating technical difficulties for
players to negotiate. And you don't do that by just writing
lots of notes, it takes a real understanding of what is possible
to play and what is not if you are planning to position your
music squarely on the border between the two.
The works on this disc span the second half of the 20th
century and give a taste of every period in Xenakis's career.
The quality and interest peak in the 1960s and then go into
slow decline. The most famous work on the disc, and deservedly
so, is Nomos Alpha written in 1966. This is one of his
greatest masterpieces and by any estimation deserves a place
among the top few cello works of the 20th century.
The mathematical principles on which it is based are derived
from successive projections of a rotating cube. Or at least
I think that is what's going on; the liner notes are mercifully
vague when it comes to the technical end of things. But you
don't need any knowledge of maths to enjoy this. As with many
of Xenakis's string works, Nomos Alpha calls for heavy
scraping on the strings and includes lots of tremolo glissando.
So the music is always in a state of flux, either from the continuously
changing pitch or through movement across the continuum between
noise and sound. The technical challenges here are just extraordinary.
At the end, for example, the cello plays a series of scales
in contrary motion on artificial harmonics. The mind boggles
trying to imagine the contortions the cellist's left hand must
go through to achieve those.
None of the other works on the disc quite match this opening
track for invention or originality. The two tracks that follow
- Charisma for cello and clarinet and Kottos again
for solo cello - are unremittingly aggressive. Xenakis chooses
performance techniques that are going to produce the most abrasive
sounds and pursues them doggedly. There is musical interest
to be had here, but it takes some work.
Epicycles for cello and 12 instruments is similarly unrelenting.
The block chords from the brass here resemble those in Eonta.
That work succeeds because the lack of rhythmic interest in
the brass is more than compensated for by the piano. Here the
solo cello line also lacks rhythmic invention, as if the composer's
interests lie only in his harmonic elaborations. Interesting
as they are, they don't make up for monotony of rhythm and orchestration.
Roscobeck, a more recent work from 1996, achieves an impressive
feat by combining cello with double bass and coming up with
a range of musical textures and ideas that justify the pairing.
The high quality of the sound reproduction helps to clearly
articulate these bass textures. The balance is kept even down
at the bottom, with no extraneous bass amplification, all the
better to admire these strange timbral combinations.
The programme ends with an early work, Dhipli Zyia. This
shows another side to Xenakis, one that is closer to Bartók
than to the post-war avant-garde. The piece never quite breaks
out into a folksong but always feels like it is about to.
No great technical challenges on this last track, but by this
point cellist Arne Deforce has earned the right to rest on his
laurels. The cello playing throughout is excellent, especially
when you consider the astonishing challenges the composer sets.
The cellist, his various collaborators, and the sound engineers
all make a good job of the brutal noise-like textures, and the
sound of the cello always has a visceral immediacy, even though
the microphones are usually placed a reasonable distance back.
The first track of this disc is more than enough to recommend
it, and the endless fascination of Xenakis's score repays multiple
listenings, especially with a performance and recording of this
quality. The other works are only likely to be of interest to
already committed Xenakis fans. Although if you really want
to get your head around the relationships between higher mathematics
and Modern music, this would be a great place to start.