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Christopher Abbot
Fanfare, January 2009

In comparison with the two Boulez CDs on Sony, you get more Varèse for your money with the two volumes on Naxos [Vol 1 - Arcana / Integrales / Deserts—available on 8.554820], and very little loss in performance or sound quality. The present disc could make a very attractive one-disc sampler of Varèse; when combined with its predecessor, the two budget discs make a first-rate alternative to the full-price Chailly set.

Carla Rees
MusicWeb International, November 2008

Varèse’s music is powerful and modernist, even when heard some forty years after the composer’s death. This disc is a true delight, containing a range of works composed from 1906 to 1961. The second volume in Naxos’s series of Varese Orchestral Works, the disc also contains solos, such as Density 21.5 for flute, and choral works, such as Ecuatorial.

The opening work is Amériques, heard here in its original 1921 version, for full orchestra. This is an earthy performance, which brings to life Varese’s vivid description of the New World. Varèse was born in France, but moved to the United States in 1915. His early European compositions were burned in a fire, and Amériques was the first of his new works. A substantial oeuvre lasting almost 25 minutes, the work possesses a strong sense of the new, a fresh start, and the slight unease that comes with unfamiliar territory. Varèse makes use of exotic instruments, such as the alto flute, sirens and a vast array of percussion to create a distinct sound world. His music is full of almost pagan energy; there are parallels here with The Rite of Spring, tied with an astounding forward-looking modernism, which makes the music sound contemporary even now. This is an incredible work, performed well with raw energy and a sense of conviction.

Varèse’s interest in new sounds gained him a reputation as being ‘the father of electronic music’. Composed for two Ondes Martenot, bass voices and ensemble, Ecuatorial was completed in 1934 and is thought to be the first work ever written to combine live and electronic instruments. This curious work possesses its own unusual sound-world—how often does one encounter two Ondes Martenot?—with a feeling of tribal humanism. The vocal writing depicts a savage scene of human sacrifice, using an array of unusual techniques which combine with the modernist sounds of the Ondes Martenot and electronic organ to give the feel of an unusual and slightly intimidating place. Use of percussion and brass add strength to the orchestration, and the juxtaposition of microtonal sounds with more ‘normal’ harmonies creates a thrilling tension in the work.

Nocturnal has a similarly tribal feel, although the soprano soloist gives a more western feel to the work. The texts were originally planned, like Ecuatorial, to come from ancient civilisations, but Varèse finally settled on English texts by Anaïs Nin alongside nonsense sounds which Varèse created himself. Nocturnal was first heard, incomplete, in 1961 for a Composer Portrait concert, and the work was never finished, despite the creation of numerous sketches. The version heard here was completed by Chou Wen-Chung in 1969 from the composer’s notes and sketches.

Dance for Burgess is a brief work, lasting less than two minutes, and was composed as a gesture of friendship to Burgess Meredith, for a Broadway musical called Happy as Larry. Making use of swing and jazz styles, the work retains Varèse’s individuality while demonstrating his skills as a composer.

The 1947 work for large orchestra, entitled Tuning Up, was composed for Boris Morros, who was producing a film called Carnegie Hall. The idea was for a parody work for the New York Philharmonic and Stokowski, but Varèse took the piece seriously and was offended at the lack of respect the piece received during rehearsals. A brilliant work, however, it contains fragments of works by Varèse and others, interspersed with an underlying tuning note A.

Hyperprism is one of Varèse’s better known works, scored for nine wind instruments and nine percussion and completed in 1923. It caused a riot at its premiere, despite its brevity—it is less than four minutes long—but was the first of Varèse’s works to be published.

The earliest of Varèse’s surviving works, Un grand Sommeil noir for soprano and piano is a setting of a Paul Verlaine text, composed in 1906. The haunting melody lines and largely consonant harmonies are far removed from the biting modernism of Amériques. This beautiful work is given an excellent performance here by Elizabeth Watts and Christopher Lyndon-Gee.

Density 21.5 is one of the seminal twentieth-century works for flute, and is thought to be the first use of key clicks in the flute repertoire. Composed for Barrère’s platinum flute, the title comes from the density of platinum and the work seeks to demonstrate the properties of that metal in flute making. This performance by Maria Grochowska is considered and convincing, combining expression with a sense of drama.

Ionisation uses thirteen percussion (including sirens) and piano and demonstrates Varèse’s use of rhythm. He creates textures, tensions and resolutions in a way one would not immediately associate with percussion music, and despite the lack of pitched material the overall effect is startlingly melodic.

This is an excellent disc, which serves as a welcome introduction to the work of this largely under-valued composer. Varèse’s music divulges a creative genius who was undoubtedly a long way ahead of his time, and one can only listen in awe at his work. The performances here are entirely convincing and manage to encapsulate the raw humanistic elements in the music. At the price of a Naxos disc, this is unmissable.

Philip Clark
Gramophone, October 2008

…provocative and inflammable music…British conductor Christopher Lyndon-Gee and the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra don’t let the side down. These Polish musicians are well used to the rough-and-tumble of performing the early textural works of Penderecki and Górecki and the visceral rawness, inherent in their own culture, transmutes powerfully to these seminal Varèse scores. The standout performance for sure is the original 1921 version of Amériques, scored for an orchestra of over 150 musicians and an offstage “banda”. Lyndon-Gee marshals his charges with a careful ear to balancing this monolithic ensemble: Varèse’s emphatically reiterated rhythmic mantras are daintily articulated, but the musicians never sound browbeaten by his attention to detail. The elemental power of the closing moments is feral way beyond the call of duty. Performances of the trail-blazing percussion ensemble work Ionisation, and other classics like Hyperprism, Densité 21.5 and Ecuatorial, are cut from the same devoted cloth.

American Record Guide, September 2008

Aside from the major works what’s also here is a collection of smaller, shorter works, some reconstructed (Nocturnal, Dance for Burgess, Tuning Up), that reach across the entire career of this composer…I can recommend this for the major works; the minor works are nice for filler. But don’t plan on listening to this composer for more than half an hour. You’ll go nuts-unless you like your music interspersed with air raid sirens and the wail of an occasional Ondes Martenot.

Dan Martin
MusicWeb International, June 2008

The final item on the disc, Ionisation, is written for 13 percussion instruments, its rhythmic cells combining horizontally and vertically to create a three-dimensional musical structure. It’s as motoric as this composer gets, the last 17 bars a long ‘fade’ to bells, tam-tam and suspended cymbal. Lyndon-Gee’s performance is one of his best, crisp, detailed and dynamically well calibrated. Nagano is rhythmically less propulsive but makes up for that by highlighting the work’s different sonorities. As usual, Chailly strikes a good balance between detail and momentum, the subatomic flares superbly realised.

Lyndon-Gee just isn’t competitive when pitted against Nagano and Chailly. His recording is a major drawback because it overemphasises the sheer brutishness of Varèse’s work without revealing its many subtleties. With the possible exception of Density 21.5 and Ionisation this disc must yield to the competition is almost every way. Indeed, if I had to choose a single Varèse collection for my desert island it would be Chailly’s; the sound is some of Decca’s best, the readings are imaginative and the exhaustive liner-notes are provided by Chou Wen-chung himself. It’s also the most complete survey so far, and as a twofer—the original set I own is no longer available—it’s very competitively priced too.

Uncle Dave Lewis, June 2008

While Lyndon-Gee’s notes are quite detailed and engaging, though they could have used closer editing; the headnote tells us that the version of Nocturnal recorded here is Chou Wen-Chung’s 1969 edition of the work, but Lyndon-Gee refers to Chung’s 1980 version in the body of the text, leading one to believe that is the one in use. So which one is it? In addition, Lyndon-Gee draws some historical inferences in his text that are debatable, such as his insight into Varèse’s interest in Anäis Nin, which would be hard to support based on documentation so far published. Describing Antonin Artaud as a homosexual is simplifying matters a bit and does not take into account Artaud’s long and complex relationship with actress Genica Athanasiou. Certainly, Varèse would have had more interest in Artaud’s constant bickering with God and his nearly systematic revolt against reality than any alleged sexual orientation. However, one wants to forgive Lyndon-Gee for stepping so far out on the ledge, as his interpretations of Varèse possess a key component—passion—lacking from so many Varèse interpretations made in the digital era. In this respect, Naxos’ Varèse: Orchestral Works, Vol. 2, is easily recommendable and provides a healthy antidote to most interpretations of Varèse’s work that are out there.

David Hurwitz, June 2008

This recording of Amèriques is unique in that it uses the original version for 155 players. Following the piece with the revised score in hand turns out to be quite a trip as Varèse made a great many changes, too many to go into here. Listeners familiar with the revised version will notice many new colors in the original, including the frequent presence of offstage brass, major shifts in dynamics, lots of altered percussion, and a totally different ending.

Certainly it would be difficult to find a more effective champion of this juggernaut of a piece than Christopher Lyndon-Gee. In his Rochberg recordings, also for Naxos, he has demonstrated am impressive ability to control large forces and shape complex textures in a way that always sounds purposeful and expressive. So it is here, not just in Amèriques, but also in Ecuatorial, Nocturnal, and above all Ionisation, which sounds amazingly nuanced, even dance-like in this interpretation. No matter how freaky Varèse gets (and in Ecuatorial especially the answer is “very”), Lyndon-Gee never seems to be trading expressivity and naturalness for mere precision; accuracy is a given, not an end in itself. The remaining works on the disc include Varèse’s earliest surviving piece, the song Un grand sommeil noir, very nicely sung by Elizabeth Watts, as well as a notably pure, limpid version of Density 21.5, one of the 20th-century’s masterpieces for solo flute.

As with many other Naxos releases from Poland (including Antoni Wit’s largely excellent series of recordings), the engineering is warmly vivid within an ample acoustic that perhaps diffuses the impact of the brass and percussion just a bit, if never troublingly. Certainly it gives a good idea of the huge forces required for Amèriques. The men’s voices of the Camerata Silesia also come off as just a bit tame and “choir-like” for the primal music of Ecuatorial, but in all ways that matter significantly, this is an outstanding release, and one of self-evident importance to Varèse admirers.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, May 2008

An extrovert who burst onto the musical scene in the early part of the 20th century, Edgard Varese was an experimentalist in musical sounds.

His early works had their inspiration from his mentor, Vincent d’Indy, though he seems to have learned little from Widor during his time as his pupil at the Paris Conservatoire. Life in France came to a close when he viewed his experiments having more opportunities in North America, and at the age of 32, he emigrated to the United States. As a renegade composer he was to gain much notoriety in the States, a fact celebrated in his 1921 Ameriques, a score for large orchestra that extended the boundaries of sound. It is very challenging to perform, but the type of music to showcase the virtuosity of the Polish National Radio Symphony. In many contrasting sections it lasts well over 20 minutes and is here receiving a world premiere recording in the work’s original format. His search for new sonorities employed the newly created ondes martenot in his 1934 composition, Ecuatorial, here performed, as originally intended with the inclusion of a men’s chorus. Those strange sounds in the 1930’s—the forerunner of today’s electronic music—are here given full vent by the recording engineers. Maybe as we progress through the disc the wailing sirens he so loved become too much of a cliche, and he left precious little having had most of his music written before 1920 destroyed in a fire, followed by his own destruction of the remainder. Only the work for soprano and piano, Un grand Sommeil noir, survived this vandalism as it was already in print. Some of his experiments failed, and I doubt you would want to hear Tuning Up more than once, though Ionisation for 13 percussion and piano is wonderfully fascinating. The excellent soprano, Elizabeth Watts, is an outstanding British newcomer, with Thomas Bloch one of today’s leading exponents of the ondes martenot. Christopher Lyndon-Gee, who has already given us the first much acclaimed volume of Varese, clarifies the complexities and throughout draws superb playing from the Polish musicians.

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