Varèse: The Complete Works
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For a composer who is (now) recognizably part of the 20th-century classical canon, the French émigré Edgard Varèse's output was astoundingly meager. Just 15 compositions from his entire life (he destroyed the compositions from his early years, and was a merciless editor of his own material in general) made it out to the listening world. Varèse was caught in the chasm between the music of yesterday and the music of tomorrow: scoring music for modified theremin, steamboat whistles, or air sirens, all balanced with the force of a large orchestra; writing pieces based on the flows of water and wind because that's what shapes the earth; using the concepts of chemical reactions and specific gravity as a basis for his music. Using extremes of contrast, dissonance, and variety in sound, Varèse's pieces had power in the way he attacked and shaped the sound he imagined. From Ionisation (1929), scored almost entirely for unpitched percussion, to the electronic-only, three-dimensionally produced Poeme Electronique (1958), he's provided a foundation that many genres, musicians, and composers were to build from not only for the next 40 years, but inevitably beyond. --Robin Edgerton
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Chailly knows this and in him Varese has found a winning advocate. Competition in the later compositions is scarce, which in-of-itself makes Chailly a prime recommendation. But that should in no way diminish the work of the ASKO Ensemble, navigating the rhythmic insanity of Ionisation with ease or finding perfect ensemble balance in Octandre. It is in the earlier, more expressive works, however, where Chailly is not always the clear winner.
For Ameriques, Chailly chooses to perform the "Original Version," complied from sketches by Varese's long-time pupil, Chou Wen-Chung, a mistake in my mind. The "Original Version" is about five minutes longer, more diffuse, and has a less satisfying conclusion. That isn't to say the music is not still fantastic, especially with the fabulous off-stage brass effects and larger, more colorful battery of percussion. Still, my reference Ameriques remains Dohnanyi's Decca performance of the revised score. Dohnanyi is just as probing as Chially but has at his disposal a better instrument - the Cleveland Orchestra. While the Clevelanders certainly do not match their Dutch colleagues in terms of color, they can do something the Concertgebouw has never been able to do, that is play with rhythmic intensity. The soft-edged slackness and rounded edges of the fabulous Concertgebouw robs the music of some intensity. Decca's more atmospheric recording captures the bloom of the famous Amsterdam hall, but the more upfront microphone placement at Severance give the music a more visceral impact.
On the other hand, Chailly's Arcana remains the performance of choice, improving on the somewhat grey toned Boulez performance on Sony. I would prefer, again, a bit more crispness from the lower strings, but the energy and excitement is palpable, and no orchestra can match the Dutch winds in terms of color, making music where other ensembles sound screechy. Tuning up, like Berio's Sinfonia, is chocked full of musical quotations, and is great fun, while both versions of Un Grand Sommeil Noir are really spectacular.
In the end, an amazing achievement in such difficult music, and Chially's ability to characterize each piece is commendable. I would urge those that love Ameriques to search out Dohnanyi's long out-of-print performance but this set is easily recommendable as the best complete set of Varese's works currently available.