The London Sinfonietta and the National Youth Orchestra wrench Edgard Varse out of revered obscurity with a series of astounding concerts at the Southbank Centre’s Varse 360 festival.
The myth of Varse paints him as merely “influential”, or as a “pioneer” who broke down the brambles to clear a path for future composers. This series brushed all that patronising guff aside and presented his music as freshly chiselled minerals, spiking out of ragged rocks.
Even for a huge fan, these concerts presented a ream of surprises, starting with the uncompromising, fearful masterpiece Ionisation for percussion and sirens. Conductor David Atherton showed the work’s power by holding it in check, like a pitbull’s owner yanking the angry dog back. The piece wasn’t aloof or alien, it was rather intricate and intelligible; there was as much contrapuntal invention as in anything by Bach, and as much timbral wizardry as in anything by Berioz.
Another classic followed, the solo flute miniature Density 21.5, performed by Michael Cox as a private and searching piece. The lamenting, lost character of it had an almost (forgive the pretentiousness) existential quality to it, even being reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s sparse/dense stage work for solo mouth, Not I.
Ecuatorial was another shocking highlight. John Tomlinson spewed a bizarre, doom-laden multilingual text over two fantastic ‘cello theramins’ and a powerfully precise orchestra. The space-age nature of the sounds combined with the deadly earnest Tomlinson did bring Captain Kirk to mind, but that was no bad thing among such beautifully twisting, original music. The sound-world, drama and sheer futuristic thrust of Ecuatorial has surely been treated as the blueprint for every cinematic Sci-Fi adventure since it was composed in 1933.
In Dserts Varse dishes up slabs of orchestral sound interrupted by contrapuntal electronic obelisks that still manage to sound light years ahead of most of today’s ‘glitch and crackle’ electronic composers. Again it’s the familiar/unique blend of piquant percussion and the piling up of opaque brass harmonies, ruminating this time at their own pace, uninterested in entertaining, unaware of an audience.
The final concert of the series was performed by the National Youth Orchestra, conducted by the whirling dynamo of Paul Daniel. He was hidden for the first item, which was the tongue entirely-in-cheek Tuning Up; the orchestra began to (innocently) ‘tune up’ before they gradually and comically warped into tightly controlled chaos, slipping, as if accidentally, into beautifully luscious passages. The gravitational centre of the music continues to flit and players (clearly revelling in this romp) are restless. The whole piece was overtly theatrical, and caused a genuine sensation among the giddy audience.
Arcana was the next gem. There was a sense that Varse had conceived this piece for manipulated tape and simply transcribed it for a gigantic orchestra. The music was of unspeakable menace, spilling into romanticised heartache, and being oddly laced with mispronounced quotes of Stravinsky’s Firebird. This work, maybe more than any other by Varse, showed what a master of the orchestra Varse really was, but for some reason orchestral mastery is rarely noticed if the actual ideas are strong enough in themselves.
There was something of Michael Howard about Nocturnal, a fragment of a B-Movie opera, set in a moonlit graveyard. At least that’s what it sounded like. Death-metal chorus of basses grunting “You belong to the night” goaded the wonderfully plaintive soprano Elizabeth Watts with gutteral jabs. There was more Varse-style theatricality here, too, Watts singing in-character (though without a plot) and tugging emotions as if this was Act 3 of Lucia di Lammermoor. What a wonder there would have been if Varse had somehow fused Equatorial with Nocturnal and given us a deep-space opera!
The iconic beginning of Ameriques is the equal of any 20th Century classic, and from then on furrows music of extraordinary physicality at a phenomenal rate. An orchestra containing nineteen percussion players, four harps, offstage (and onstage) brass sections give and indication of the forces involved, all playing with stunning panache and guts. Ameriques is never conservative, but there is more of a classical poise to it than any other piece by Varse, being more respectful of proportion and polite structural balance. Perhaps the idea was to create suspense in a more accessible way than usual, but the effect was to (only slightly) erode Varse’s granite blocks of thought.
Paul Daniel thought it was a good idea to end the Varse festival with a performance of Prlude l’aprs-midi d’un faune by Debussy. It was a bad idea, like having Picasso’s Guernica in the last room of a Francis Bacon retrospective.