Varèse Complete Works, Vol 2

Author: 
Arnold Whittall

Varèse Complete Works, Vol 2

  • Intégrales
  • Ionisation
  • Ecuatorial
  • Densité 21.5
  • Déserts
  • Nocturnal

This is the second issue in Kent Nagano’s Varese series for Erato, and includes everything absent from the first disc (8/93) except for the late tape piece Poeme electronique and a very early song. There are three basic differences from the rival Boulez performances on Sony Classical (apart from excellent digital sound): the use of a solo voice, rather than a small chorus, in Ecuatorial; the retention of the taped episodes in Deserts; and the inclusion of Nocturnal, which was put together after Varese’s death from the surviving sketches by his pupil Chou Wen-chung.
The first of these differences is to be warmly welcomed and, since Ecuatorial is one of Varese’s best compositions, a general recommendation for this Erato disc is guaranteed. In Ecuatorial Varese found a way to be challengingly raw and primitive without reducing purely musical interest to dangerously low levels, and this performance, recorded with a fine appreciation for the different tonal qualities of the keening solo voice, the eerie ondes martenots, and the often raucous brass, could hardly be bettered. Philippe Pierlot’s ravishing account of the short solo flute piece, Densite 21.5, is also a plus. But the other works prompt all the usual doubts about musical substance and staying power.
Both Integrales and Deserts now seem almost laboured in their sheer repetitiousness, and in the latter the taped episodes, for all their technical crudity (by present-day standards) actually seem more imaginative than what surrounds them. As for Nocturnal, it might have been better if Chou Wen-chung had simply left it to slumber undisturbed in the archives.
Apart from Ecuatorial and Densite 21.5, there is some compensation in an incisive account of the all-percussion piece Ionisation, which still retains more than a smidgen of its original pioneering punch. There is no denying the competence of these performances or the high quality of the Erato recordings, but Varese is one twentieth-century radical to whom history, not least in the form of those composers who have taken his tentative innovations so much further, has not been kind.'

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