Composer: Iannis Xenakis
Orchestra: Ensemble Intercontemporain
Conductor: Michel Tabachnik
Number of Discs: 1
Format: APE (image+cue)
Size: 278 MB
Phlegra, for 11 musicians
Jalons, for 15 musicians
Keren, for trombone
Nomos Alpha, for cello
Thalleïn, for 14 musicians
Not prime Xenakis, but still formidable
This Erato disc features the Ensemble Intercontemporain (EI) performing three 1980s Xenakis works along with two solo works. In general, I think Xenakis excelled with large forces, an orchestra or large ensemble. It was his organization of sounds, chaos careening nearly out of control, yet somehow also moving purposefully, that was his genius. Of course there are also some amazing electronic works, and one of his masterworks, Kraanerg, combines both orchestra and electronics. Here we have three compositions for medium-sized ensembles, and they reveal this typical marshalling of complexity to varying degrees. (This disc has since been reissued in an Apex-two disc set, combined with some generally unimpressive works for harp.)
Upon delving into Xenakis’s music, I discovered that he moved toward a less complex, more bombastic style in his late 1980s/1990s period, partly as he became increasingly focused on ancient Greece. So this is not top-drawer Xenakis, but worth hearing for committed fans of the composer.
Only one of the three EI pieces is conducted by Pierre Boulez, “Jalons” (14’30” — 1986) for 15 instrumentalists, and it was commissioned by and dedicated to the Ensemble and to Boulez, who conducted its first performance. The other two are conducted by Michel Tabachnik — “Phlegra” (13’15”) for 11, and “Thallein” (17’22” — 1984) for 14, and featuring prominent percussion as well as delicate passages for woodwinds, horns and piano, is the best of the three. Xenakis described “Phlegra” as a battleground between the Titans and the new gods of Mount Olympus. Not easy listening, to be sure. “Thallein” sounds fresher than the other two, with greater internal space and variety. “Keren” (6’33” — 1986) was commissioned by the International Trombone Association, and was written for Benny Sluchin, who performs it here. It is a fantastic piece, and it works as a great contrast to the rough-hewn ensemble works. “Nomos Alpha” (12’31” — 1965) is the only piece that is out of place in this set, as it comes from an earlier period, Xenakis’s prime years. It was written for Siegfried Palm, and is here performed by Pierre Strauch. “Nomos Alpha” is a powerful work, one of the major 20th landmarks of the solo cello repertoire. This performance does not compete with Rohan de Saram’s on the Arditti Quartet’s set of Xenakis’s works for strings on Montaigne, but it rounds out the disc nicely.