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Thursday, August 3, 2017

Edgard Varèse - Complete Works (Riccardo Chailly)


Composer: Edgard Varèse

  • (01) Tuning Up
  • (02) Amériques (original version)
  • (03) Poème électronique
  • (04) Arcana
  • (05) Nocturnal
  • (06) Un grand sommeil noir (orch. Antony Beaumont)
  • (01) Un grand sommeil noir (original version)
  • (02-03) Offrandes
  • (04) Hyperprism
  • (05-07) Octandre
  • (08) Intégrales
  • (09) Ecuatorial
  • (10) Ionisation
  • (11) Density 21.5
  • (12-18) Déserts
  • (19) Dance for Burgess

Sarah Leonard, soprano
Mireille Delunsch, soprano
Kevin Deas, bass
François Kerdoncuff, piano
Jacques Zoon, flute
Asko Ensemble
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Riccardo Chailly, conductor

Date: 1992-1998
Compilation: 1998
Label: Decca



This set is announced as “The Complete Works” of Edgard Varese, which, in the context of the listed comparisons, is certainly true. Moreover, with the Boulez recordings, made over the period 1977-83, now sounding their age and Nagano’s survey lacking sheer dynamic presence, Chailly sets new standards for an overall collection.

‘Complete’ requires clarification. Excluded are the electronic interlude, La procession du Verges, from the 1955 film Around and About Joan Miro (is this still extant?) and the 1947 Etude Varese wrote as preparation for his unrealized Espace project – material from which, according to Chou Wen-Chung, found its way into later works. Successively Varese’s pupil, amanuensis and executor, Professor Chou would appear ideally placed to advise on a project of this nature. Yet it does seem surprising to omit the Etude, completed, performed and apparently extant, while including Tuning Up, which Varese never realized as such, and Dance for Burgess, which does not exist in a definitive score. That said, the former is an ingenious skit on the orchestral machine, while the latter is an unlikely take on the Broadway dance number: the light they shed on Varese’s preoccupations in the late 1940s makes their inclusion worth while.

At two-and-a-half hours’ duration, Varese’s output is similar in length to the mature works of Webern, though more akin to Ruggles in its solitary grandeur. There now seems little hope of early works being unearthed, as these were most likely destroyed by the composer prior to sailing for New York in 1915. The accidental survival of the song Un grand sommeil noir (a more restrained setting than Ravel’s) offers a glimpse of this pre-history and, in Antony Beaumont’s orchestration, an insight into its likely sound world.

In the ensemble pieces from the 1920s and early 1930s, Chailly is responsive not only to dynamic extremes, but also tonal shading. Works such as Octandre and Integrales require scrupulous attention to balance if they are to sound more than crudely aggressive: Chailly secures this without sacrificing physical impact – witness the explosive Hyperprism. He brings out some exquisite harmonic subtleties in Offrandes, Sarah Leonard projecting the texts’ surreal imagery with admirable poise. The fugitive opening bars of Ionisation sound slightly muted in the recorded ambience, though not the cascading tuned percussion towards the close. The instrumentational problems of Ecuatorial are at last vindicated, allowing Varese’s inspired combination of brass and electronic keyboards to register with awesome power. Chailly opts for the solo bass, but a unison chorus would have heightened the dramatic impact still further.

Ameriques, the true intersection of romanticism and modernism, is performed in the original 1921 version, with its even more extravagant orchestral demands and (from 13'36'' to 17'48'') bizarre reminiscences of The Rite of Spring and Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces, understandably replaced in the revision (Dohnanyi’s superbly recorded if aloof account makes for illuminating comparison). Arcana was recorded back in 1992: rehearing it confirms that while Chailly lacks Boulez’s implacability, he probes beyond the work’s vast dynamic contours far more deeply than either Mehta or the disappointingly anaemic Slatkin (a reissue of Martinon’s electrifying Chicago reading on RCA, 7/67, is long overdue).

No one but Varese has drawn such sustained eloquence from an ensemble of wind and percussion, or invested such emotional power in the primitive electronic medium of the early 1950s. Deserts juxtaposes them in a score which marks the culmination of his search for new means of expression. The opening now seems a poignant evocation of humanity in the atomic age, the ending is resigned but not bitter. The tape interludes in Chailly’s performance have a startling clarity (far superior to what sound like remixes on the Nagano recording, while Boulez omits them entirely), as does the Poeme electronique, Varese’s untypical but exhilarating contribution to the 1958 Brussels World Fair. The unfinished Nocturnal, with its vocal stylizations and belated return of string timbre, demonstrates a continuing vitality that only time could extinguish.

Varese has had a significant impact on post-war musical culture, with figures as diverse as Stockhausen, Charlie Parker and Frank Zappa acknowledging his influence. Chailly’s recordings demonstrate, in unequivocal terms, why this music will continue to provoke and inspire future generations.

-- Gramophone

More reviews:
BBC Music Magazine  PERFORMANCE: ***** / SOUND: *****


Edgard Varèse (December 22, 1883 – November 6, 1965) was a French-born composer who spent the greater part of his career in the United States. Varèse's music emphasizes timbre and rhythm and he coined the term "organized sound" in reference to his own musical aesthetic, posing the question, "what is music but organized noises?". Although his complete surviving works only last about three hours, he has been recognised as an influence by several major composers of the late 20th century, classical and popular music alike. Varèse was also known as the "Father of Electronic Music".


Riccardo Chailly (born 20 February 1953 in Milan) is an Italian conductor. Chailly studied  conducting with Franco Ferrara and became assistant conductor to Claudio Abbado at La Scala at the age of 20. He started his career as an opera conductor and gradually extended his repertoire to encompass symphonic music. Chailly was chief conductor of the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra (1982-1988) and Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (1988-2004). He is currently chief conductor of the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig (since 2005). He recorded exclusively for Decca.


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