Varese: Déserts; Ecuatorial; Nocturnal; Intégrales; Densité 21.5; Ionisation

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Varese
LABELS: Erato Musifrance
WORKS: Déserts; Ecuatorial; Nocturnal; Intégrales; Densité 21.5; Ionisation
PERFORMER: Philippe Pierlot (flute), Phyllis Bryn-Julson (soprano), Nicholas Isherwood (bass-baritone); Radio France Men’s Chorus, French National Orchestra/Kent Nagano
CATALOGUE NO: 0630-14332-2

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As in his previous Varèse collection, Nagano overplays the Gallic finesse – a real and neglected aspect of the music, but not one that should neutralise its visionary viscerality. Combined with Erato’s admirably clear recording the result is sometimes lightweight, but Intégrales emerges as a score of positively Mozartian Classicism. The triumphs, though, are the compellingly nightmarish Nocturnal, far outclassing the only previous version (Abravanel’s 1968 Vanguard recording) and a superbly plangent Déserts, the best yet on disc. Boulez’s Sony performance perversely disqualifies itself by omitting the sections of musiques concrète: admittedly Varèse sanctioned the practice, but only as a counsel of despair, for it’s tantamount to Beethoven’s Ninth without the chorus. The taped sounds come up vividly here and Nagano integrates them better with the instrumental sections than I’ve ever heard before. Varèse also allowed that Ecuatorial might be sung by a solo voice, but despite the precision of Nicholas Isherwood’s diction, the effect always tends to reduce the essential monumentality of this Mayan masterpiece. Why didn’t Nagano use the excellent unison chorus he had for Nocturnal? Varèse’s invented vocables, a mite comical from a soloist, become baleful from multiple throats and nasal cavities. Nevertheless, a truly indispensable disc of some of the defining works of our century.

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Calum MacDonald