Known for drawing unusual sonorities from conventional instruments, Xenakis strangely left the piano's potential for novel sounds unexplored. In these works, Xenakis stays on the keyboard without so much as a plucked string or any use of gadgetry to alter the instrument's sound. Although that might make these pieces appear less radical, even "safe," Xenakis exploits every other option available.
Violinist Irvine Arditti, pianist Claude Helffer, and the Spectrum ensemble conducted by Guy Protheroe produce consummate performances of the Greek avant-gardist's unwieldy chamber music. If you're familiar with Xenakis's career you'll know he was trained in mathematics and enjoyed a successful career as an architect. Such background might prepare you for the music's preoccupation with line, volume, and form in an unusually abstract way, but it won't prepare you for its visceral, almost primitive power. On Akanthos, the singer Penelope Walmsley-Clark must cope with what is surely one of the most ridiculous soprano parts ever written.
On the four previous installments in Timpani's series of the orchestral works of Iannis Xenakis, Arturo Tamayo and the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg have presented highly varied and volatile works from different periods of the composer's career and have provided an excellent overview of his output. This fifth volume focuses on the early orchestral works, which brought architect and mathematician Xenakis world renown as a cutting-edge composer and put him in direct opposition to the serial establishment.
The fourth volume of Timpani's series of orchestral works by Iannis Xenakis presents four works from three distinct periods, though not in chronological order. Erikhthon for piano and orchestra (1974) is one of the "arborescent" or branch-like compositions from Xenakis' middle phase. Expanding and contracting through criss-crossing glissandi and bending clusters, the extremely loud and aggressive orchestra overwhelms the impossibly dense and struggling piano part; in this role reversal, Erikhthon may be regarded as the absolute antithesis of the conventional piano concerto. Ata (1987) is a late work, contrapuntal in nature but with the difference that the polyphonic lines are all tightly bunched in clusters; it also features a sly reference to Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps, which is unexpected and hilarious.
Arturo Tamayo's recordings of the works of Iannis Xenakis on the Timpani label are among the finest available, for they are finely interpreted, expertly performed, and brilliantly recorded. Xenakis' music is always different from piece to piece, because the composer never wanted to repeat himself, and his works always present unique challenges, depending on the nature of his evolving techniques and changing expressions. Whether it is in the stark text and extreme vocalizations of Aïs (1980), or the densely dissonant aggregations of Tracées (1987), Empreintes (1975), Noomena (1974), and Roáï (1991), Tamayo keeps the energy levels high and shapes the sound to have a sharp edge and forceful impact.
This ambitious and beautifully produced two-CD set includes nearly all of Iannis Xenakis' chamber music for strings, piano, and strings and piano combined. Chamber music constituted a small part of the composer's output, since large ensembles and large forms were vehicles more commensurate with the aesthetic of his monumental, granitic music. There are no small pieces here, though; in each of these works, ranging from solos to a quintet for piano and strings, Xenakis was able to express his uncompromising vision no less ferociously than in his orchestral works. While all of the pieces have an elemental character, many with a visceral punch, the actual sound of the music is surprisingly varied, and the individual works have distinctive and individual characters. In spite of the weightiness and rigor of the music, the tone is not necessarily heavy, and some pieces, like Evryali for piano and Dikhthas for violin and piano, have moments of what could almost be described as whimsicality.
Universal Music pays tribute to the composer with this keenly priced 4 CD set. Most of the recordings found here are making a comeback to the catalogue, some are first time onto CD. Ten years after his death, the innovativeness of his music has lost none of its force and clearly marks him out as an essential composer of our time. “this is an extraordinary collection of pieces; several of which are among the most ear-stretchingly dissonant, exciting and uncompromising you’ll ever hear…And however hard it is to pin down exactly why, Xenakis’s wildest outbursts always sound controlled, cunningly organised…None of this music is easy listening, but it’s impossible not to be impressed by such craggy, exhilarating physicality.”