Varèse’s Sounds of the City

by Sedgwick Clark

The music of Edgard Varèse (1883-1965) has a singular voice—harsh, aggressive, dissonant, dynamic, often witty, uncompromising—the very embodiment of a city rising. For once, the nearly always misused word “unique” applies to a composer’s sound; despite his early influences—most obviously Stravinsky and, here and there, Ives—there is absolutely no possibility of mistaking Varèse’s music for any other composer’s. It all fits comfortably on a pair of concerts (and CDs), which was how Lincoln Center presented it last Monday and Tuesday (7/19 and 20) at its chi-chi summer festival. But I’m not sure that’s the best way to hear it. Problem is, there’s not much stylistic development in Varèse’s music, a certain sameness to the works, despite LC’s cutesy title for the concerts, “Varèse (R)evolution.” Like Brahms, who also destroyed his juvenilia, there’s a consistent style in all of Varèse’s works that survive, although the German composed in a wider range of forms—symphonies and concertos, solo and chamber, choral and vocal.

I shouldn’t have worried. These were non-subscription concerts, which are always preferable, for the audience had come to hear this music played by these performers. And these performers were smashing, the masters of every pile-driving fortissimo and every ominous pianissimo, playing with utmost commitment and enthusiasm. The audience was a youngish one, and everyone appeared to know what to expect, without the usual subscription quotient that hies for the exit before the last note has decayed. And speaking of sonic decay, the silence in Avery Fisher Hall at the end of Arcana was simply awesome—of the pin-dropping variety—and conductor Alan Gilbert held that silence for an ideal length of time, unlike so many of his infantile colleagues who try an audience’s patience by delaying applause after quiet endings (usually in the Mahler Ninth).

The first concert began impressively with Varèse’s final composition, the eight-minute Poème Électronique, composed for the 1958 Brussels World Expo. Hearing it in Alice Tully Hall, spaciously amplified over large speakers, revealed subtleties of wit and timbre that no home system could hope to match. The original four-track tape must not have been available because the “performance” on this occasion was two-track stereo-but it was mighty impressive still.

The main (human) performers this evening were the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) and So Percussion, conducted by Steven Schick. The works were Hyperprism (1923), Offrandes (1921), Intégrales (1925), Ecuatorial (1934), and Déserts (1954), all played with riveting ensemble and attack. The latter work has three tape sequences evocative of factory sounds—very ’50s—interspersed throughout the 25½-minute duration. I was pleased to hear it performed as such because the only other live performance I’ve heard was led by Boulez, and he omitted the tape sections, as Varèse sanctioned. Having now heard the complete score, I understand why Boulez opted sans tape: Unlike the more subtle, transparent textures of Poème Électronique, the Déserts tape is plagued with background noise and congestion. Moreover, the tape at this performance was mono, unlike the stereo reproduction of the Poème. Riccardo’s Chailly superb set of complete works on Decca includes the tape interlude, but the rudimentary two-track reproduction consists disappointingly of a mono signal played first in one channel and then the other, back and forth. The tape quality on Decca is not much better than it sounded in Tully.  Unfortunately, I don’t have access as I write to my early-1960s Robert Craft LP for comparison. But I only liked moments that reminded me of Louis and Bebe Barron’s “electronic tonalities” for the 1956 sci-fi film classic, Forbidden Planet.

Also on the first concert was the early, impressionistic song, Un Grand Sommeil Noir (1906), sung by soprano Anu Komsi and accompanied by Mika Rämmäi. A charming trifle entitled Dance for Burgess (1949) was edited by Varèse’s disciple Chou Wen-Chung in 1998). ICE founder Claire Chase’s virtuosic performance of the solo flute work, Density 21.5 (1936), brought the house down. The less said about Étude pour Espace, for soprano and chorus, the better; it was a disaster at its first performance in 1947 and an embarrassment in Chou’s 2009 “orch. and arr. for spatialized live performance.”  In this awkward presentation, amateurishly microphoned sound emanated from speakers on and above the stage, with the soprano panned disconcertingly left and right. It should have been allowed to remain in oblivion.

The second concert is easier to cover. The New York Philharmonic’s Varèse tradition dates back to Boulez’s tenure in the early 1970s. His peerless Columbia recording, now on Sony, of Ionisation, Arcana, and Amériques belongs in every collection. Lorin Maazel conducted Amériques toward the end of his tenure, and Alan Gilbert took the reins on July 20 in rip-roaring renderings of Ionisation (1929-31), Octandre (1923), Arcana (1925-27; rev. 1960), and Amériques (1918-21; rev. 1929). Also performed were Nocturnal (1961; completed by Chou Wen-chung, 1969) and Tuning Up (1947; completed by Chou Wen-chung, 1998).

Hearing his works in such close proximity made two things clear: first, while Varèse is an important figure in the development of American music during the crucial post-World War I years, his years of important composition ranged only from Amériques to Ionisation, a mere eight works in 13 years. Also, that while his faithful disciple Chou Wen-chung, who studied with him from 1949 to 1954, may have performed yeoman’s duties in popularizing his teacher’s music, the scores he edited or completed were either trivial (Tuning Up and Dance for Burgess) or trash (Étude pour Espace and Nocturnal).

Whatever torment Varèse underwent to produce those eight masterworks and his final masterpiece, Poème Électronique, the audiences of these two concerts stood and hollered lustily for the great man’s vision, with a final cheer when Gilbert held the score of Amériques in the air.

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