Iannis XENAKIS (1922-2001)
Complete Cello Works
Nomos Alpha (1966) [19:13]
Charisma (1971) [4:31]
Kottos (1977) [10:33]
Epicycles (1989) [12:27]
Paille In the Wind (1992) [5:15]
Hunem-Iduhey (1996) [3:19]
Roscobeck (1996) [7:46]
Dhipli Zyia (1951) [4:52]
Arne Deforce (cello)
Ensemble Fabrik/James Wood
rec. Concertgebouw Bruges, 2 June, 5 July 2010; Cologne, 23 September 2010 (Epicycles).
AEON AECD 1109 [67:56]
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
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.
A great place to start if you want to get your head around the relationships
between higher mathematics and Modern music.