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Varèse: The Complete Works

4.5 out of 5 stars 28 customer reviews

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Audio CD, September 15, 1998
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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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Product Details

  • Performer: Mireille Delunsch, Sarah Leonard, Asko Ensemble
  • Orchestra: Royal Concertgebouw
  • Conductor: Riccardo Chailly
  • Composer: Edgard Varese
  • Audio CD (September 15, 1998)
  • Number of Discs: 2
  • Label: London / Decca
  • ASIN: B00000AFR8
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #146,738 in Music (See Top 100 in Music)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Audio CD
Varese was Frank Zappa's favorite composer. His admirers also include the great jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker and the hardest of hardcore avant-gardists, Iannis Xenakis. This suggests something of both the appeal of Varese's music, and the continuing potential of his influence. He was an original who re-thought music from the ground up, and a perfectionist who signed his name to only a handful of monumental, uncompromising works.
I was inspired to buy this set after hearing Chailly conduct "Arcana" in concert. The performance laid down here is as tremendous as the one I heard live, and the rest of the set is generally at the same high level. Chailly has the great Concertgebouw Orchestra and the virtuosic ASKO Ensemble at his disposal, and the Decca engineers provide stunning sound. Chailly's approach is more impulsive and passionate than that of, for example, Boulez, who presents an equally valid but somewhat more clinical take on the music, in effect dissecting it. True Varese-heads will probably want to hear both.
Despite the question of whether certain pieces really belong among "the complete works," there are multiple pleasures and surprises in every corner of this set. The volcano-like sonic assaults of "Arcana" and "Ameriques", the weird electronics of "Ecuatorial" and "Poeme Electronique", the frenzied percussive radicalism of "Ionisation", the humor of "Tuning Up": sit back and be blown away. If you believe there's a place in music for police sirens, anvils and sleigh bells, this is for you.
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Format: Audio CD
First, let me state that I am a long-time Varese fanatic. I first heard Ionisation live at a contemporary music concert in my town when I was 12, and I was hooked. I immediately bought the old Robert Craft double album on Columbia and played it until there were scratches on the scratches. So I was overjoyed to see a modern "complete" recording with up to date sonics. For the most part, I haven't been too disappointed with the performances either.
Chailly is great on much of this music. Ameriques and Arcana are sonic extravagazas. And this is the best recording I've heard of Nocturnal and Ecuatorial. Chailly does a good job with the chamber pieces of the 20s and 30s, though I agree with other reviewers, Boulez is much clearer on Ionisation. Chailly misses some of my favorite parts, and I find it hard to hear the first snare drum theme. (I'm also quite partial to Craft's version, but I don't think it's available anymore.)
I also must add to the chorus of exceptions on the questionable material. The orhestrated version of the solo song has no place on this CD. It doesn't sound like Varese, more like Debussy, and though the song is quite impressionistic, I think we presume too much to orchestrate it and pass it off as "complete" Varese. And neither Tune Up nor Dance for Burgess really add much to our understanding of Varese, and are of questionable value. I suspect that Varese would have destroyed them completely had he been able. Much better to have a recording of the revised version of Ameriques. The revision is so extensive, that a side by side comparison would be illuminating.
All in all, I like this CD. Chailly's take on Varese is big and passionate, something that I think both Boulez and Craft miss. Abravanel comes close to this passion, but Chailly wins because of the gorgeous sonics. I highly recommend this CD to those interested in exploring the unique sound world of Varese.
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Format: Audio CD
Edgard Varèse's music has been accorded only a marginal place in the mainstream musical community despite having long held a strong, resonant influence on many important creative musicians of the 20th century. Thus, a new release of his music is well deserved, particularly in light of the failures of earlier recordings to present Varèse's music with the necessary sound image. To this end, Chailly's performances are well-achieved (although some rhythmic errors compromise performances of the large orchestal works Ameriques and Arcana). In particular Chailly seems to appreciate Varèse's sense of dynamics, which are best played to the extreme. The sound quality and sense of energy and vitality are this recording's best features. Unfortunately, Varèse completed only about a dozen works in his mature period, which presents a significant challenge to the recording company (this is a 2 CD set). The producers seemed to think that the best approach would be to pad the recording with ill-considered works such as "Tuning Up", "Dance for Burgess", and an orchestration of Varèse's early song, "Un grand sommeil noir" (which also appears in its original version. "Tuning Up" and "Dance for Burgess" were completed by Chou Wen-Chung, a notable composer and the executor of Varèse's musical estate. Both projects had only been dabbled with by the time Varèse died, and I imagine that had his health been better he might have abandoned both pieces altogether because neither seems to advance his creative project. Varèse was notoriously draconian in his editorial capacity and he would routinely toss out the works with which he was dissatisfied.Read more ›
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