HumanitiesWeb.org - The Organised Sound of Edgard Varèse [Recommended Recordings]
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Site last updated
26 June, 2013

Edgard Varèse
Recommended Recordings



"I have been waiting a long time for electronics to free music from the tempered scale and the limitations of musical instruments. Electronic instruments are the portentous first step toward the liberation of music. "

Varèse: The Complete Works
(Edgard Varèse, Sarah Leonard, et al; Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, ASKO Ensemble, et al; Riccardo Chailly, conductor )
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. (review by Robin Edgerton)

Varèse: Works Vol 1 (1920-1927)
(Phyllis Bryn-Julson; ORTF National Orchestra; Kent Nagano, conductor)
Kent Nagano is a young and brilliant figure among contemporary conductors, and perhaps this suits him for the music of Varese, the audacious French rebel. The purity of Phyllis Bryn-Julson's soprano contrasts with the static, almost metallic blocks of sound that characterize Varese's Offrandes--the instrumental writing seems to flaunt itself in the face of traditional notions of beauty. Nagano's strategy is not to smooth over the harshness of Varese's music; he lets it vibrate and sizzle. (review by Joshua Cody)

Varèse: Works Vol 2 (1925-1961)
(Nicholas Isherwood, Philippe [flute] Pierlot, et al; ORTF National Orchestra, ORTF Philharmonic Orchestra members, et al; Kent Nagano, conductor)
Varese's musical aesthetic is so uncompromising, so extreme, that listeners tend to sharply divide themselves between fervent admirers and equally vociferous detractors. One of the finest aspects of Kent Nagano's performances of the music is his unwillingness to apologize for it; he lets the music speak for itself in its clumsy, brilliant grandeur. The result is perhaps the definitive recording of the French modernist's work to date. (review by Joshua Cody)

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