BBCSO/Oramo review – Varèse's musical monoliths wreathed in majesty

Barbican, London
The composer’s large-scale works were accompanied by pioneering and rarely heard pieces in one of the BBC’s Total Immersion days

Few major 20th-century composers can be comprehensively surveyed in one of the BBC’s Total Immersion days. But Edgard Varèse is definitely one who can be. An afternoon programme by the Guildhall New Music Ensemble took in Varèse’s smaller-scale pieces, mostly from the 1920s and 30s, and there were foyer performances of Dance for Burgess, written for a doomed Broadway show, and of Ecuatorial, with its pair of wailing ondes Martenot conjuring up an evocation of the Mayan world, before the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sakari Oramo took over for the larger-scale orchestral pieces.

Oramo framed a series of rarely heard works with Arcana and Amériques, two of Varése’s greatest achievements. Allison Bell was the superb soloist in Nocturnal, a 1961 setting of Anaïs Nin that hovers between monodrama and ritual incantation. Etude pour Espace (in the completion by Varèse scholar Chou Wen-Chung) is all that survives of a 1940s plan to compose a grand choral symphony, while the 1954 Déserts was a pioneering experiment in combining instruments and tape, alternating almost pointillist ensemble writing with raw industrial sounds.

But Oramo’s performances of the great orchestral monoliths made the biggest impact. Amériques supplants the world of Debussy and Stravinsky that Varèse had left behind when he emigrated to the US in 1915 with the sounds of the urban world he encountered in his new home, while the massive blocks of musical material that collide in Arcana, completed in 1927, generate the visceral energy that is unique to Varèse. If one occasionally missed the icy brutality that Boulez used to bring to these scores, Oramo’s more subjective approach was equally impressive, and the orchestral playing was consistently majestic.

• Broadcast on Radio 3 on 8 May and then available on BBC iPlayer until 7 June.

Contributor

Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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