Varèse 360° Full Blown

Wednesday 21 April 2010

Hearing all of Edgard Varèse’s music in three concerts over two nights was too good an opportunity to pass up. It shouldn’t be such a rare event. “We believe it deserves to be done at least once a year,” conductor Paul Daniel enthused at the end of the final concert. A bit gushy, perhaps, but by that time I could see his point. The experience had confirmed, expanded, and partly confounded my understanding of the composer.

This is exacting music for the performer and the listener. Varèse has a reputation for attempting to blast his audience into submission, but heard in these circumstances the music didn’t make its demands through bullying and bombast. A remarkable manipulation of scale comes into play, by Varèse’s use of stark, densely packed details condensed into brief structures with little room for repose. Each piece forces the listener into a relatively short, but intense, burst of concentration. It’s hard to believe a work as vast as Ameriques is over within 20 minutes. As with Webern, Nancarrow and Ustvolskaya, Varèse’s music is bigger than its durations suggest.

The opening performance of Ionisation by the London Sinfonietta beautifully emphasised the skill with which Varèse shaped the levels of ferocity projected by his percussion ensemble. Musically, the execution throughout the concerts was technically dead-on and interpreted in an intelligent and opinionated way. We got to hear Varèse the composer’s music of the future, not Varèse the polemecist’s manifesto for a music of the future, as it is too often presented.

The only sticking points (besides the programme and the visuals) were a Density 21.5 that came across a bit fusty to me, and Déserts, which my friends found clunky but I really enjoyed. They dug the rough, lo-fi sound of the taped segments but thought the live bits suffered in comparison, as a piece struggling with then-emerging technology whose reach exceeded its grasp. I was fascinated by the way in which Varèse had written for percussion and brass as though they were electronic, able to be stretched, spliced and mixed like so much tape. It was the way Stockhausen and his contemporaries began to write music after they’d worked with tape recorders. Varèse seems to have been working toward that style for years.

For the final concert the massive forces of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain played the equally massive Arcana and Amériques, the latter in its even more over-the-top original orchestration. Their performances were less groomed than others, and slightly feral, which doesn’t hurt this music in the least. They packed a hell of a punch without ever losing control or resorting to untermpered noise.

This concert was neatly bookended by a choreographed version of Varèse’s fragmentary goof Tuning Up as an icebreaker at one end, and an encore of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune at the other. The relative sweetness of this piece didn’t obscure its important role as the instigator of so much 20th century music, not least because, as we were reminded, it was this music that inspired Varèse to dedicate his life to music.

It had been several years since I’d seriously listened to any Varèse and, like all good concerts, the weekend made me want to hear more. Of course, tragically, there isn’t any more than those 16 pieces. Contrary to the thoughts of some late 20th century critics who thought Varèse would be remembered more for his historical role than his music, it is music that invites repeated listening, and explorations of the man’s ideas flow from the curiosity piqued by hearing it. Listening to the crude but self-assured sounds of Poème électronique distributed through the space of the hall, you wonder what other music you’ve missed out on, for want of a few more dollars, a little extra time.