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Giacinto SCELSI (1905-1988)
Coelocanth, for solo viola (1955) [12:39]
Three Studies, for solo viola (1956) [11:49]
Divertimento No 2. for solo violin (1954) [9:30]
Divertimento No 3. for solo violin (1955) [9:13]
Divertimento No 4. for solo violin (1955) [16:58]
Marco Fusi (viola and violin)
rec. May 2019, BlowOutStudio, Monastier, Italy and Brussels, Belgium
KAIROS 0015063KAI [60:44]

Welcome to the world of ‘historically informed’ Scelsi. Last year I recommended a Kairos twofer entitled ‘Scelsi Revisited’ – review. This fine issue contained a sequence of eight new pieces commissioned from living composers to mark the initiation of public access to Scelsi’s home recordings of the original improvisations that formed the basis of his major works, many originally created on his electronic keyboard instrument of choice, the rather primitive sounding ondiola. I remarked that that the one piece on the programme I really found difficult to enjoy (or even understand) was Uli Fussenegger’s San Teodoro 8, a 42 minute ’mash-up’ which incorporated the actual ondiola sketches into the fabric of the piece –in fact I would go so far as saying these sounds utterly dominated it. I found it uncommonly ugly. I wondered what Scelsi himself might have made of it.

Another recent Kairos disc I reviewed most favourably featured the Italian violinist Marco Fusi’s remarkable interpretation of Luigi Nono’s late masterpiece La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura (review), an account which clearly involved an enormous amount of archaeological ‘digging’ on Fusi’s part and which resulted in a performance in which occasionally harsh sonics play an important and convincing part, not least in the extraordinarily vivid binaural version purchasers can access.

Fusi has again been carrying out ‘due diligence’ for this new disc which explores the solo viola and violin sequences Scelsi produced during the mid-1950s. His long essay in the booklet details his adventures analysing the original ondiola tapes that lie behind these five works. To clarify, it is understood that Scelsi arranged for ‘assistants’ to transcribe his tapes, many performed by the composer in a state of frenzied entrancement, into the printed ‘manuscripts’ which Salabert would subsequently publish. It is these scores which have enabled the increasingly frequent public performance and recording of Scelsi’s music over the thirty-odd years since his passing. Listeners like myself have got to know (and in my case truly love) his music in this way – even to recognise something of a ‘performing tradition’ with regard to some specific pieces; the obvious example in Fusi’s programme is the enigmatic Coelocanth for solo viola (it is interesting to speculate upon why the composer chose to name it after this ‘living fossil’, commonly regarded as the longest surviving species on Earth). I would contend that classic recordings such as those by Vincent Royer on Mode (mode 431) or especially Christoph Schiller on Accord (Accord 200 622) are fluent, convincing and unequivocally beautiful. To the ears of this casual listener at least, no similar claim can be made for Fusi’s new account. And perhaps that is this performer’s point.

Fusi seems to be seeking authenticity in these scores for two noble reasons. Firstly, his intensive analysis of the relevant ondiola tapes behind the five solo string works on this disc have revealed details within or between the ‘perceived’ notes that are quite simply absent from the printed scores. Fusi tells us that Scelsi often used the initial taped improvisation for each new opus as a basis for development, regularly superimposing refinements and modifications onto the original. In so doing he was apparently seeking what he described as “the true spherical dimension of sound.” This leads us to the second reason for this research. Scelsi was evidently dejected by the failure of the printed scores to communicate the trance-like essence of his music. Another telling quote from the composer is referenced:

“The scores will remain, unfortunately. They will be played. Most of the time they will be played badly. Anyway I should never have written them. Yes, I could also destroy them. But it would be difficult to burn down Salabert’s offices. To each his own truth.”

Whatever one thinks of the sonic products which have been realised on this disc, one has to doff one’s cap to Fusi and his heroic attempts to get as close as possible to Scelsi’s true intentions. As it is, I found the sound of both the viola works rendered here, Coelocanth and the Three Studies truly three dimensional in their detail, but viscerally harsh in their projection. My suspicion is that whilst Fusi’s integrity is quite beyond question, the recorded results will shock many listeners who have previously admired these works. The Kairos sound is close, dry and unremittingly coarse. This is the case even in the more ‘measured’ passages of Coelocanth. It’s a tad less marked at the outset of the first study which comes across as gently primitive, but this softer impression is only fleeting, alas.

Or maybe it’s just the ‘sound’ of this viola in this context. Fusi’s accounts of the three Divertimenti for violin are balm to the ear by comparison. Softer in tone rhythmically more pliable (as opposed the brittleness of the pulse in the viola works), these pieces seem almost playful. I enjoyed following the score of Divertimento No 3 as I sought to understand what Fusi had ‘done’, and it is easy to see how, in the first two movements especially, the notated score seems more mannered and manicured, an impression confirmed by the Taiwanese violinist Weiping Lin’s 2013 recording for Mode (mode 256). Even in the latter two panels of this work, where the ‘virtuosity’ required is more demanding and Fusi’s sound becomes slightly more acerbic there seems to be a clear attempt to ‘read between the lines’ as it were. The most substantial of the Divertimenti is the fourth, and to my ears there is a clearer resemblance between Fusi’s conception of these four relatively extended arcs of sound and the printed score, at least as it is played by Lin in her riveting interpretations.

Curiosity, adventure, integrity, technique: Fusi has the lot. However: it may well be that whilst his level of scholarship in the quest for a meaningful compromise between the spirit and letter of Giacinto Scelsi’s intentions has considerable academic value, I really can’t imagine pulling this disc off the shelves any time soon in the pursuit of sheer listening pleasure. And I hope that doesn’t mean that when I do dig out Christoph Schiller’s thirty-odd year old Accord disc of the ‘scored’ viola works, or Weiping Lin’s more recent violin disc, as I inevitably will, I’ll end up feeling somewhat conflicted.

“To each his own truth”, indeed.

Richard Hanlon

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