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Octavian NEMESCU (b 1940)
Non-Symphony No 5 “Of the Endings” (1988-1992) [29:41]
Pre-Symphony No 6 “Of the Beginnings” (1996-2000) [32:40]
Romanian Radio National Orchestra/Horia Andreescu
rec. Radio Romania, date not provided
DUX 1520 [62:21]

“There is an extraordinary moment on this record, one third into the Non-Symphony No 5; powerful blows of separate, dissonant clusters of tutti, between almost thirty second long pauses. Half a minute of silence works like an eraser of perception. It deletes our memory. Therefore, these islands of fortissimo float in the void. The orchestra keeps rebuilding the world from scratch, over and over again. The drama intensifies. The situation is repeated two thirds into the opus, albeit only seemingly, because now this is a different moment, already after the climax. This time the focus moves to the lingering sound. The drama is complete”

This is the opening paragraph of Jan Topolski’s extensive notes from this enterprising release from Dux in league with its new music imprint Błt Records. It appears to be one of a projected series of recordings of contemporary Romanian music. The two pieces on this disc are both mentioned in Michael Herman’s invaluable MWI discography of East European and Balkan symphonies; indeed I suspect that Andreescu’s account of the Non-Symphony No 5 presented here is the one to which Herman refers there. Nemescu was born in Pascani in the north-east of Romania in 1940, and as this long interview with the composer reveals, for his first 50 years he lived in a country that was beholden to state-sponsored suppression of the arts, to censorship and terror, notwithstanding a period of liberalisation in the run-up to the ill-fated regime of Nicolae Ceausescu between 1963 and 1971. I mention all this, and use the extended quote as I feel that these two furiously dissonant and uncompromising pieces can only possibly be understood in relation to that background. Any artist whose creative ideals have been stunted and essentially criminalised over decades could well produce work like this when the curtain is finally raised. Both these works’ titles imply something radical, something that challenges orthodox orchestral forms. And by that measure, by jingo, they do not fall short.

The problem for the reviewer, however is that one has to listen to this music, attempt to make sense of it and try to convey one’s truthful impressions to the reader. I have played the disc twice and made a few notes. It is most unlikely I will ever return to either of these pieces. Hopefully some readers of these pages will by now recognise that this reviewer is not remotely fazed by challenging new music. I positively relish any opportunity to take on new sounds. I embrace the discord. But with the exception of the odd shard, the briefest wisp of sound, I found Nemescu’s sound world unremittingly harsh, incoherent, loud, diffuse, repetitive, random, formless and ugly. The Non-Symphony No 5 was started the year before the fall of Ceausescu and completed three years after this event. Perhaps that explains its impact on my poor ears. After a few muffled single low piano notes one is startled by a series of searing, scything dissonant, loud chords which seem to erupt volcanically from nothing. Over its half hour span the work seems to alternate periods of virtually inaudible stasis, incredibly long silences (of half a minute or even more) and these baying, bullying, ugly dissonances. They are sometimes enriched with a ringing, generalised metallic percussion din. They make for uncomfortable listening. There are clouds of pained, astringent brass that at times make Xenakis’s piano and brass masterwork Eonta sound like Black Dyke Mills Band playing ‘On Ilkla Moor Baht ’at’ . There are very occasional tiny, unfulfilled, glimpses of melody, in two or three note sequences. They are unsettling. This is music rich in gesture and provocation. It is at times difficult to distinguish any possible microtonal intent from possible tuning issues with the orchestra. (It wouldn’t be the first time this reviewer has experienced as much in discs of Romanian repertoire played by Romanian orchestras). I started to make listening notes but frankly I found this music so relentlessly monotonous and unpleasant that I eventually had to accept the futility of the endeavour.

The Pre-Symphony No 6 admittedly features some quieter writing, but it starts at exactly the point that the previous work ended, with quiet, distant low notes played by the wind that seem to emerge and recede. Thereafter the piece seems to cover very similar ground to the Non-Symphony No 5, the alternation of a generalised string hubbub and crashing, threatening brass and percussion-led chords. Within the mix of this work I did detect the presence of occasional, muffled, quasi-minimalist ostinati. At around the 18 minute mark the prevailing mood seems to change – muted, funereally distant low string motifs creep up, before being shattered by yet more gratingly dissonant chords which inevitably precede another silence. These gestures reoccur three or four times. This section seems meaningful, but what it means…..? There also appear to be some elements of electronic manipulation (mostly applied to bell-like percussion) in the last few minutes of the work that at least inject some timbral novelty. Nemescu’s silences become ever more stretched as the Pre-Symphony No 6 approaches its final death-knell. I have rarely been so relieved to hear the muffled click of my equipment to indicate the end of a disc.

I have absolutely no reason to doubt Nemescu’s sincerity or authenticity. He is seemingly very influential in the great scheme of contemporary Romanian music. I have encountered some fascinating music from this country in the past – for example I am especially familiar with (and very much admire) the five symphonies of Stefan Niculescu (1927-2008) and six of the seven by Anatol Vieru (1926-1998), as well as sundry chamber and orchestral works by Rotaru, Radulescu, Marbe, Taranu and Stroe inter alia; many of these I have encountered in rather ‘rough and ready’ recordings of local provenance. But I really didn’t enjoy either of these two Nemescu ‘symphonies’. The note that comes with the disc is extensive and not especially impenetrable, but although I could identify one or two specific ‘events’ in the pieces that are described therein, I’m afraid I was unable to recognise much of what is discussed in terms of this music’s form, structure or philosophy.

I genuinely wonder how the audiences at live performances of these two pieces reacted; not in terms of whether they applauded (I’m sure they observed the time-honoured conventions of the concert experience) but rather how the sound of this music made them feel. I just wanted these pieces to end, on both occasions I spun the disc. I actually found myself counting down the minutes and seconds the second time. The note concludes with the following thought:

“This music needs to be experienced individually, in a personal ritual (as the subheading of Non-Symphony No 5 suggests) or over the span of six years (as the subheading of Pre-Symphony No 6 demands). This music needs to be imagined. Good luck.”

Good luck indeed.

Richard Hanlon

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