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A lot of people come to Iannis Xenakis' music through big orchestral pieces like "Metastasis" or "Jonchaies". The composer nonetheless wrote an enormous amount of music for piano, solo strings, and string quartets and quintets. This Naive disc, a reissue of material recorded as far back as the 1980s and released a few times before on Wergo, Montaigue and Naive, presents these small-scale pieces in performance by the Arditti Quartet (here Irvine Arditti, David Alberman, Garth Knox, and Rohan de Saram) and pianist Claude Helffer.
"Evryali" for piano (1973) might be the best way into the collection. Its bouncy rhythms and fairly tame harmonies are immediately appealing. Its virtuoso demands increase steadily until the climax when left and right hands seem in completely different worlds entirely. It is "modernist" and "angular", but also joyful and engaging. Much the same can be said for the short "A r. (Hommage a Ravel)" for piano (1987), with its lovely ascending and descending runs punctuated by chords, and the long "Mists" for piano (1981) delights in music of separate thick strands, creating lovely clouds of sound. On the other hand, "Herma" for piano (1962) belong to Xenakis' early period of bleep-bloopy stochastic music.
Then there are the solo string works, which are relatively straightfoward. In "Mikka" and "Mikka 'S'" for violin (1971-1976), the performer plays a musical line consisting only of glissandi. In "Embellie" for viola (1981) Xenakis celebrates the rich colours inherent in this instrument, making a very pleasurable contribution to the viola golden age we're living in (it accompanies well the solo viola works of Ligeti, Grisey and Murail). Most striking here will be the allusions to the classical tradition, with the performer at more than one point seeming to channel Bach's sonatas for solo violin. "Nomos Alpha" for cello (1965-66) is one of Xenakis' most hardcore mathematical pieces, generated by the roll of dice. It has every cello technique you can think of, and Rohan de Saram claims that years of grappling with "Nomos Alpha" made him an all-around better cellist. I have to say I prefer Siegfried Palm's performance on a DG reissue which is more rich and expressive. "Kottos" for cello (1977) is also formidable, but with a clear musical line.
"Dikthas" for violin and piano (1979) revisits the concerns of some of the solo works already heard. The violin moves in frequent glissandi, while the piano part is as exuberant as "Mists". The subtle microtonal inflections on the violin, which produce beating against the piano line, give the piece a great deal of replay value.
And then we have the string quartets. "ST/4" (1962) belongs to a series of computer-generated works, but while the music goes everywhere with wild abandon both pizzicato and sul arco, frequent tremolo gestures seem to keep it rooted. "Ikhoor" (1978) is remarkably similar to Xenakis' orchestral "Jonchaies", opening with the same bouncy rhythms. This is a work of great passion and energy, and will probably appeal to a lot of listeners. The latter two quartets were written especially for the Ardittis. With its isolated creakings "Tetras" (1983) has an air of Lachenmann about it. "Tetora" (1990) is a typical example of the late Xenakis, blocky chords moving in fairly tame rhythms, with vague references to indigenous traditions (I personally hear a little bit of Andalucian music). Sadly the Ardittis never went on to tackle Xenakis' last quartet, "Ergma", written in 1994, which has concerns similar to "Tetora". Finally, there's the piano quintet "Akea" (1986), one of the strangest works here. Here the tropes of Romanticism seem to filter through Xenakis' heavy modernism.
Some have found Xenakis' chamber works to be disappointing, and this I must dispute. While not all the pieces here are gold, I nonetheless find some of these to be among his best pieces. Few pieces show the beauty Xenakis' mathematical approach could produce like "Evryali", and the glissandi writing the composer so loved is still little heard in contemporary music.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
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This is by now a classic set of chamber music by Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001), best known for his massive orchestral and electronic works. I was disappointed when I first heard it because I expected to find more string quartets. As it happens, Xenakis did not work that much in the string quartet form, and of his four quartets only "Tetras" is among his masterpieces.
Taking this set, recorded in 1991 at WDR Koln and Radio France, as a survey of his chamber music, I can't give it less than five stars. Claude Helffer on piano, born the same year as the composer and so 69 years old when he performed these notoriously difficult works, and the Arditti Quartet play marvelously. Irvine Arditti and David Alberman play violin, and I assume Arditti plays the solo violin pieces and the violin & piano duet though the liner notes do not specify. Garth Knox plays viola, and the great Rohan de Saram plays cello.
The earliest quartet, "ST/4" (1956-62 -- 12'56), was not written as a quartet at all. ST stands for "stochastic music," and Xenakis developed algorithms in the late Fifties to generate music from probabilities. ST/4 was extracted from the larger piece ST/10 (there was also an ST/48), and used for a string quartet which was finalized in 1962. The resulting quartet is fascinating -- pointillistic, with lots of space and extended techniques, as well as incredibly dense passages, the level of density resulting from the algorithm. I do not consider this piece one of Xenakis's masterworks, but it is fascinating and compelling.
"Tetras" (1983 -- 17'33) is one of Xenakis's absolute masterpieces, and one of the greatest string quartets of the late 20th century. Dedicated to the Arditti Quartet, it is one of the composer's most effective chamber works, bringing to the quartet the level of complexity, energy, and audacity that marked so many of his works for large forces. As James Harley says, "In 'Tetras,' Xenakis's abstract thinking had evolved into a nonlinear, multi-dimensional web of formal and sonic relationships." The title is Greek for "four." According to the liner notes by Harry Halbreich, the piece is divided into nine sections, and throughout the four players mainly play as a sound mass rather than polyphonally: 1) glissandi, 2) percussive & pizzicati effects, 3) glissandi, 4) pointillistic sounds, 5) sustained chords to runs to glissandi, 6) harsh double-stops, 7) a violin & viola duo, 8) a metrically complex tutti, and finally 9) strong tremolos subsiding into pianissimo glissandi. This is far more schematic than the piece actually sounds -- it sounds exhilarating, phenomenal, and totally amazing!
"Tetora" (1990 -- 13'41), another word that means "four," is austere and somber. It opens with a modal melody, moves through great blocks of dissonant chords, all using a steely non-vibrato sonority, building to a great climax. Xenakis composed a fourth string quartet, "Ergma" (1994 -- 8'30), after these recordings. It can be found on the Xenakis: Complete String Quartets disc, recorded by the JACK Quartet. It is stripped down even further, and is characterized by harsh dissonance, maximum loudness throughout, and double stops, with a thick, intense sonority. It must be said that "Tetora" and "Ergma," the last two quartets, from Xenakis's late period which began in the late Eighties, lack the multi-dimensional complexity and excitement of "Tetras."
After "Tetras," I find the two works for solo cello to be the most powerful and compelling of these chamber works: "Nomos Alpha" (1966 -- 15'22) and "Kottos" (1977 -- 9'39). The solo violin pieces are short, and while the solo viola piece ("Embellie") is longer, none of the three make nearly the same impact as the cello music. "Nomos Alpha" revolutionized cello technique, and while "Kottos" is not as radical, it is quite beautiful, despite Xenakis's instructions to the performer to "abstain from beautiful sounds." There is also a string trio, "Ikhoor" (1978).
The works for piano include the piano quintet "Akea" (1986), the solo works "Herma" (1960-61), "Evryali" (1973), "Mists" (1980), and "a.r." (1987), and "Dikhtas" (1979) for violin and piano. I continue to warm up to Xenakis's piano music, but lacking the ability to play glissandos, which are such an integral part of his vast structures of sound, I have always found it less compelling than his string music. Helffer is masterful, and some of these pieces are more accessible than you would think!
It falls to me to comment on the package of this 2009 Naive deluxe reissue. There is no reason to acquire it if you already have the earlier standard jewel-box version . The music is identical and the liner notes are mainly identical, though actually two small things are omitted here: a nice chronological table of the compositions by type and year, and a glossary of terms such as arborescences, glissando, sieve, and stochastic.
Harry Halbreich's essay is informative, with additional commentary on each composition. The font size is much larger, and the one thing this reissue has over the earlier version is a large black-and-white photo of the composer from the time of the recordings filling the 12.5cm X 21cm front of the booklet.
*** *** ***
Xenakis is one of the greatest composers of the late 20th century, and this set is mandatory listening for anyone interested in the best of the post-war avant-garde.