VARÈSE: The Complete Works (orchestral, electronic, vocal)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam; Riccardo Chailly, cond./ASKO Ensemble, Amsterdam. Prague Philharmonic Men's Choir (Nocturnal). Sopranos Sarah Leonard (Nocturnal, Offrandes), Mireille Delunsch (Un grand sommeil noir), and bass Kevin Dean (Ecuatorial). Flutist Jacques Zoon (Density 21.5)
London 460 208 (2 CDs) (DDD) (F) TT: 71:22 & 79:14

Edgard Varèse was born in 1883—two years after Bartók, one after Stravinsky—and first majored in mathematics at the insistence of his father until finally, at age 21, he rebelled. First he enrolled in Paris's Schola Cantorum for two years, where his instructors included the school's founder, Vincent d'Indy, and Albert Roussel. In 1907 he transferred to the Paris Conservatoire, where the organist and composer Charles Widor became his principal teacher, but again for only two years.

Exasperated by academic traditions that he considered outdated (echoes of Berlioz 80 years earlier), Varèse became a conductor. In 1909 he moved to Berlin until World War I; there, in addition to conducting choruses, he became an intellectual protégé of Busoni. At Prague in 1914 he conducted the concert premire of Debussy's The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastien, but this was both the climax and end of his European career. After discharge from the French army because of illness, Varèse emigrated to the U.S. in 1916, and lived here for most of the rest of his long but often troubled life.

His works from 1904 through 1914—including eight large orchestral pieces and an unfinished opera, Oedipus and the Sphinx, to a libretto by Richard Strauss's collaborator, Hugo von Hofmannstahl—were lost during the war. He started afresh in this country as an avant-garde conductor who composed in a boldly dissonant, explosive style first revealed in Amériques for monster orchestra (unplayed for five years). Offrandes for soprano, chorus and orchestra followed, offending audiences unprepared for his abrasive notions of "freed sound." Next came three riot-provoking works for small orchestra and percussion in 1923-4; Hyperprism, Octandre, and Intégrales. In 1927 he completed Arcana, again for monster orchestra—a last hangover from the beginning of the 20th century, epitomized by Mahler's Eighth Symphony and Schoenberg's Gurre-Lieder.

Silence followed until Ionisation in 1931 for 41 percussion instruments and two sirens. In 1934 he unveiled Ecuatorial for solo bass and orchestra, based on the Maya Quiché prayer from Popul Vuh. Then in a complete turnabout, he created Density 21.5 (the weight of platinum) for solo flute in 1936. After that, the official list of Varèse's finished works lists nothing more than Déserts in 1953-4, which combined wind and percussion instruments with electronic sounds—a provocative "first" in musical history.

He wrote a storied electronic score in the second half of the 1950s: Poème electronique, for the Philips pavilion (demolished shortly after) that Le Corbusier designed for the Brussels World Fair of 1958. Varèse created his music on four tracks in Philips' lab at Eindhoven, Holland, to be played through 240 speakers turning slowly in a 360 degree sound space, while filmed images were projected on the ceiling. The recording here is an efficient mixdown of the original four tracks to two. Before Varèse's death in 1965, he completed one more work: Nocturnal for soprano and orchestra in 1961, on a text from Anaïs Nin's The House of Incest (to which he added "phonetic syllables"). Nuit, another work from the same book by Nin, was never finished.

Virgil Thomson honored the esthetics, impact, and intercontinental influence that Varèse exerted between wars (and after) in a chapter on American Music Since 1910, published in 1971. If this is out-of-print (check on the Internet), your public library should have a copy. And if it doesn't, raise hell; libraries need shaking up periodically to keep the dust from settling.

London's two discs contain three short works not in the "official" Varèse catalog, two of them edited by the composer's pupil and musical executor, Chou Wen-chung. The first, prepared for this recording, is Tuning Up based on unused music for the 1947 film Carnegie Hall. The second is another 1998 Wen-chung reconstruction—Dance for Burgess (the actor Burgess Meredith) for a 1950 Broadway musical that tanked after one performance. While Tuning Up is good fun if not quite echt Varèse, Dance is a trifle of dubious validity. The third "bonus" is a 1906 song-setting of Verlaine, Un grand sommeil noir—the only published music from his youth, influenced by Debussyian Impressionism, that survived WW1. It is sung in its original form with piano accompaniment at the end of Disc 1; then repeated at the start of Disc 2 in a diffusive orchestration "by Anthony Beaumont, commissioned by Riccardo Chailly and the RCOA" for this recording.  Well-enough should have been left alone.

The oldest item in this collection is the RCOA's maiden recording of Varèse's music—Arcana, from 1992, already issued. Neither as played nor as recorded does it equal other performances here, much less Jean Martinon's visceral, mid-'60s performance for RCA with the Chicago Symphony, just rescued from limbo on a new "High Performance" CD using "24/96 technology" that our 16/44 CD-players cannot—yet—open up maximally (see separate review).

Pre-digital versions of Arcana by Robert Craft, Zubin Mehta, and Pierre Boulez may have been sincere but were simply not well-enough played to be competitive. I haven't heard Leonard Slatkin's recent RCA recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra, but a few colleagues I've spoken to have been politely underwhelmed. Like other orchestral works in Varèse's small, surviving cache, Arcana is haunted by Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps, a debt that Chailly tries to conceal.

Most of the "performing versions" in London's collection are the work of Prof. Wen-chung: either restorations of gargantuan originals that Varèse edited down for practial use, or reconstructions—seven in all, fully half of the contents. Since 1992, the RCOA's acquaintance with this repertoire has resulted in more idiomatic, if basically overly civilized performances, unstintingly assisted by everyone else. In all cases except Arcana—which is way too reverberant—the set has been sensationally well recorded.

If, by the end of the second CD, you suffer from bells-&-whistles-&-siren fatigue (as I did), take the contents piece by piece, cautiously if need be. Allow some time in between for digestion. And if you end up still hating Varèse, or feel battered, or think of him as old-hat "modern," remember that he was up there with Debussy, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Webern, Hindemith and Bartók as a father-figure in 20th century music through the 1960s.

R.D. (Sept. 1999)