My previous experience of Varèse's music is limited to an excellent, kinetic NYO performance of Amériques at the Proms two years ago. The first piece on tonight's programme, Ionisation, recalls Amériques with its siren and rhythmic insistence. Like much of the music to come, Ionisation is a succinct but tightly woven work which doesn't overstate its case - in its monumentalism I heard a sort of Janáček Sinfonietta for percussion - dragging the listener into its broad timbral envelope with its futurist dynamism...
... which is something that can't be said of the subsequent Density 21.5 for solo flute, which amounts to little more than an amuse bouche for the instrument (programmeless, I don't have a name from the solo performer who was taken from the ranks of the typically finessed London Sinfonietta). The subsequent Dance for Burgess (in a realisation by Varèse's former pupil Chou Wen-chung) was much more interesting, probing orchestration focussing interest where the dispersed tonality had left a void.
To end the first half, Sir John Tomlinson joined the ensemble to perform Ecuatorial, essentially a cantata in Spanish about which Varèse said
I conceive the music as having something of the same elemental rude intensity of [pre-Columbian art]. The execution should be dramatic and incantatory, guided by the imploring fervour of the text...Well this is certainly what we got in that feral-sage manner that Tomlinson can summon. The piece is notable for the use of two Cello-Theremins, electronic instruments (easily confused with the Ondes Martenot that Varèse had used in Amériques). It was interesting to hear Tomlinson, no doubt following the score scrupulously, using modified vowel sounds to produce hyper-legato line, tantamount to glissando. This had the effect of blending across the middle ground between the traditional instruments of the ensemble and the ethereal, pure-toned Theremins.
I mention this as the second half opened with Etude pour Espace (another Chou Wen-chung arrangement), in which a soloist from the vocal ensemble Exaudi applied a similar technique of apparently modified vowels. The text is even more opaque, aphoristic and fragmented, and shared amongst ensemble and soloists with spatially adjusted amplification. It was nonetheless rather effective, largely due to the meticulous attention given to articulation and ensemble by the excellent Exaudi, defying the clarity-distortion of electronic mediation. The oxygen-starved pontilism of the solo soprano and the lyric characterisation of the formerly-mentioned solo contralto (again, nameless) were beyond reproach.
Finally - and fully prepped in the sonic and textural continents of Varèse's sound world - we moved on to Déserts. I must admit here to having been rather irritated by the light designs of Zerlina Hughes, casting the stage in gloom possibile and wilfully going to blackout after every piece. Like much of the music in the programme though this must have simply been warm-up for the final work as the light & projection seemed well-appropriated to the music here. This is not least as three sections of the work are pre-recorded, industrially clanging soundscapes that put me in mind of tracks in Portishead's most recent album Third.
I must confess that the intrigue of alien sounds, particularly those attempted in the live ensemble wore off half way through the work - I ached for some lyricism or formal overdetermination beyond the precipitate sections of toe-tapping rhythm. David Atherton deployed his customary - and effective - technique of conducting beyond the end of the work to ensure silence in the space beyond the final bars, as the lights inevitably died again.
I enjoyed much of the concert, particularly the opportunity to hear music investigating the new frontiers of sound with the introduction of electronics. It's been interesting to hear this music of the late 1920s having seen Fritz Lang's silent masterpiece Metropolis recently, a spiritual brother in design if not purpose. I can also understand why people have been linking Varèse with the subsequent work of Messiaen (although Messiaen's compositional rigour was what this music clearly lacked) and indeed Johnny Greenwood's orchestrations for Radiohead as well as his own music.