VARÈSE: AmÈriques.  Arcana.  DÈserts.  Ionisation.
Chicago Symphony Orch/Pierre Boulez, cond.

DG 471 137 (F) (DDD) TT: 68:22

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VARÈSE:  Arcana. Octandre. Offrandes. IntÈgrales. DÈserts.
Polish National Radio Symphony Orch/Christopher Lyndon-Gee, cond.

NAXOS 8.554820 (B) (DDD) TT:  70:46

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One doesn’t just sit down with a VarËse record, much less two, and listen straight through unless one is comatose or catatonic. These came within the same week, not only to hear but to compare with previously reviewed issues. It took some time, believe me. For detailed comments on what I’ll be referring to in acronymic shorthand, consult the Index. There you’ll find a 2-disc set on Decca/London by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam (hereinafter RCOA) conducted by Riccardo Chailly, plus Jean Martinon’s pace-setting 1967 performance of Arcana with the Chicago Symphony (CSO), remastered on a midprice RCA/BMG “High Performance” disc.

Here we have remakes by the latterday CSO of three works that Pierre Boulez recorded in the ‘70s for CBS/Sony with the New York Philharmonic, to which he’s added two-thirds of DÈserts - a work he premiered in 1954. That ‘70s stereodisc, by the way, in part replaced Robert Craft’s under-rehearsed versions of all VarËse’s orchestral music on two Columbia/CBS mono LPs in the ‘50s.

The Polish National Radio performances on Naxos, from Katowice, duplicate Boulez’s CSO Arcana, but offer the complete DÈserts - meaning the three “Electronic Interpolations” that Boulez chose to omit. They add up to almost 12 minutes of Christopher Lyndon-Gee’s 27:11 timing, and are not insignificant: DÈserts was, after all, VarËse’s first combination of orchestral and electronic sounds. You may not like the electronics but they’re an integral part of the piece. Naxos’ usual Katowice recording team have produced the usual Katowice sound heard in PNRSO performances of Lutoslawski, Penderecki, Gorecki, et al., which is to say plain, somewhat harsh, basically flat: sufficient, without adding anything to the music or the performances (which may be a good thing or not, depending on one’s point of view). In this repertoire, the end product is fatiguing early on, despite Lyndon-Gee’s quicker tempi than Boulez’s in the two pieces they share. Lyndon-Gee, too, is sufficient as well as proficient, but not league-leading.

That would be Kent Nagano with the French National Orchestra on an Erato disc I’d forgotten till now I owned! - “Volume 1 (1920-1927)” of the composer’s l’Œuvre. But more of that after Boulez and the CSO, held in DG’s vaults since 1995-96. “The French Correction,” so dubbed by the NYP, has become old in approach as well as years. This is the slowest Arcana now available and sounds it - at 19:42, longer than Martinon’s 17:59 by more than 2½ minutes (Nagano’s is 18:27; Lyndon-Gee’s is 18:36). Martinon’s CSO was basically the orchestra that Fritz Reiner had honed (albeit with a different concertmaster and principal horn) in his near-decade there. The CSO that Boulez conducts is the chrome-plated ice-breaker of Solti’s 22-year tenure, which Barenboim has dulled since 1991 (even more in the half-decade since these performances were recorded). It plows into VarËse, causing everything to sound pretty much like everything else despite two sets of producers and two teams of engineers. But if Arcana (1926) lacks thrust, even more seriously AmÈriques (1920-21) lacks humor, as well as a rowdiness that reflected the composer’s impression of his new homeland. Boulez is poker-faced, dour, painstakingly old-mannish in the way Klemperer became at the tail-end of his career. The music on DG’s disc that comes off best is Ionisation for 13 percussion instruments, less than six minutes of music (5:51 here) that VarËse - a famously slow composer - worked two years to produce The recording throughout is loud, detailed and forthrightly brutal.

Now, about Nagano, to whom I first listened right after replaying Arcana by Boulez and Martinon. That was a mistake, because the recording isn’t nearly as aggressive on top as DG’s or RCA’s 24/96 remastering of Martinon (which, however, needs a boost in gain to open out). Listened to separately, however, Erato’s Radio France sound has almost the bloom of analog without the muddying echo of La Salle Wagram (where EMI recorded for decades). It lets the music knock you down, not the engineering. Better yet, Nagano organizes VarËse’s loose ends. His performances have a real destination one appreciates as they proceed and accrue. There’s plenty of muscle, too, which has not always been the case with him. For the record, Erato 4509-92137 contains - in addition to the Big Machines of AmÈriques and Arcana - Hyperprism, Octandre and Offrandes, the last with Phyllis Bryn-Julson as a mature-sounding but musically impeccable soprano soloist (although I prefer the younger, steadier sound of Maryse Castets on Naxos). Plus, Erato prints the text of both songs trilingually. If you can find it, forget the rest including the RCOA.