Xenakis – Composer Portrait (28 November)

Xenakis
Tracées [UK premiere]
Le sacrifice
Erikhthon * [UK premiere]
Six chansons
Empreintes
Ata

Nicolas Hodges (piano) *

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Pascal Rophé


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 28 November, 2003
Venue: BBC Studio One, Maida Vale, London

After the London Sinfonietta’s recent high-impact Xenakis concert, this wide-ranging programme of less familiar fare was particularly welcome for including works from his years of study in Paris (1949-53), only belatedly acknowledged. Even die-hard Xenakians would be hard-pressed to put a name to the Six chansons of 1951 – pithy folksong transcriptions which might have wondered out of the last two books of Bartók’s Mikrokosmos. Like Ligeti’s contemporaneous wind Bagatelles, albeit from a markedly different cultural perspective, they work within prescribed limits – until, in the closing number, Xenakis similarly throws caution to the wind with charged harmonic and rhythmic interplay.

On the brink of his musical ’coming of age’ in 1953, Xenakis was working with certain of the pointillist techniques which then preoccupied Boulez and Stockhausen – only to find them wanting. Inspired by an ancient Greek ritual involving the slaughtering of bulls, Le sacrifice adopts a ’scorched-earth’ policy to pitch and timbre – relying on cumulative momentum and microtonal inflections inherent in their repetitions to create contrast and variety over the six-minute span. Lacking the textural density of his breakthrough, Metastasis, the present work suggests Xenakis could have fashioned a career as a composer in the burgeoning field of art-house cinema had the desire arisen.

Forward two decades, and two works from near the beginning of the likely ’golden age’ of Xenakis’s composing – 1972-87 – in which ’arborescences’ (branching designs) brought organic coherence as well as gestural impact. Erikhthon (1974) draws the bludgeoning non-minimalist patterns of the solo piano Evryali into the context of an orchestra whose fluctuating dynamics and spiralling glissandi are countered by the pianist’s roles as percussive complement and time-keeper – functions which Nicolas Hodges discharged with his customary panache. The serried ranks of wind and strings in Empreintes (1975) brought a more monumental, though never static approach to bear on similar procedures, recalling the claustrophobic atmosphere in Xenakis’s uncompromising treatment of the Oresteia.

Two works from 1987 framed the concert – Tracées, a brief but explosive curtain-raiser in which the ’Xenakis orchestra’ is utilised to the full; and Ata (apparently the derangement of the senses brought on by the Gods!) – almost an amalgam of the organic and gestural approaches and a perfect synthesis of the Xenakis idiom prior to a decade of new exploration only partially fulfilled.

The playing of the BBC Symphony Orchestra brooked no compromise, galvanised by Pascal Rophé – his understanding of, and feel for this music always in evidence. A conductor with a Boulezian ear for sonority and balance, his direction of Pelléas et Mélisande for Glyndebourne Touring Opera next year is to be keenly anticipated.

  • Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 10 January 2004 in “Hear and Now”
  • If you would like to attend BBC Symphony Orchestra concerts at Maida Vale then call BBC Audience Services on 020 8576 1227 or visit BBC Tickets

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