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with Don Mager

Two Greek Composers At Their Diamond Jubilees

Xenakis, Iannis. Xenakis Complete Vol 2: IANNISSIMO! (Waarg 1988, Charisma 1971, Analogiques A + B 1958, Thallein 1984, Herma 1960-61, Palimpsest 1978). ST-X Ensemble Xenakis USA, directed by Charles Zacharie Bornstein. Salabert/Vandenburg Wave Ltd. VAN 0003, 1997.
Theodorakis, Mikis. Symphony No.7. "Spring Symphony." Dresden Philharmonic, conducted by Herbert Kegel, with the Radio Choir of Prague, the Radio Children's Choir of Prague, the Choir of the State Philharmonic of Lithuania, and soloists, Kari Lövaas, soprano, Violetta Madjarova, Alto, Sergey Larinas, Tenor, Gunther Emmerlich, Bass. Intuition Records INT 3131 2, 1994.

Each of these recordings celebrates a live performance. The Xenakis was presented as a concert on the composer's 75th. Birthday, 29 May 1997, at Cooper Union, Great Hall, and recorded the following day at St. Peter's Church in Chelsea, New York City. The Theodorakis is a live recording of the premier concert at the Schauspielhaus in Berlin, 2 December 1987, but not issued on CD until 1994. The Xenakis is the second volume in a project by the New York group, ST-X Ensemble Xenakis USA, which has been formed expressly to record the complete works of Xenakis. The Theodorakis is part of a series of recordings of his large-scale works by mainly German orchestras, issued on Intuition Records. Xenakis is 75 years old, Theodorakis 73.

Greek music for the last fifty years has been dominated by these two astonishing personalities. But two musical imaginations could scarcely be more unlike--as if not only not sharing the same country nor culture, but seemingly not sharing even the same century nor universe. Even so, their careers have crossed time and time again, each giving support and succor to the other especially in face of political opposition and censorship.

Of the two, Theodorakis is the populist ideologue, whereas Xenakis is the avant-garde intellectual, pushing beyond the limits of his own training and immediate culture n architect, Xenakis brings to music a complex mathematical theorization. Each work is grounded in the calculated processes of scale and interval design. Timbers and dynamics are rigorously controlled and plotted. Like Stockhausen, Berio and Boulez, he spawned a generation of followers, for whom each new work, usually prominently staged at a major international festival, was welcomed as a magnificent event. Despite these elitist markings, Xenakis music has an aural impact that is visceral, emotive, and arresting.

The project headed by Charles Zacharie Bornstein represented here by volume two offers a sample of work form different periods and for different instrumental combinations. Each cuts its own distinct path trough time, inviting listeners into unexpected quests and vistas. Waarg for winds and brass, for instance, is enigmatic and intriguing, for it exploits repeatedly a clustered microtonal scale which sounds like it is simultaneously descending and ascending--a sort of aural riddle. Herma, by contrast, is less immediately ingratiating and fun, for it is a fiendishly virtuosic solo piano work of intense density; its rewards come on the tenth listening and after. Charisma delicately explores the timbers of cello and clarinet, playing out simultaneously the distinctions between string and wind sounds, and their surprising capacities to sound like each other. Analogiques was written twice, once for nine strings, and again from prepared electronic tape. This performance gives both versions simultaneously using a new realization of the electronic tape notations by Paul D. Miller (a.k.a. D J Spooky "that subliminal kid"), but the rigid synchronization of the two superimposed versions leads, for my taste anyway, to a work that is far to disjointed and choppy to sustain itself successfully beyond the fascination of its layered sonorities.

The big wonderful works on this release are Thallein and Palimpsest. Both have the feel of three movement structures, therefore a kind of narrative shape helps a lis guide himself across the aural events. Thallein opens with light textures and filigree effects produced with chirping, warbling and glissandi. It moves to a more stringent antiphonal section in which percussion comes to the fore, syncopated winds chirps alternate and collide with bursts of frenzied brass; finally, the work transforms into brass clusters with the strings sliding around in extended glissandi, at last subsiding into two dry muted chords.

Palimpsest is a sort of piano concerto, joyous and celebratory. Like Waarg, the work explores invented scales, which do not repeat at the octave, and like Thallein, it marvelously plays out unison versus antiphonal timbers among the various instrumental groups. But unique to its own joyous invention is a huge percussion battery and piano cadenza that close out the work's last moments with a thrill that arrives with surprising suddenness and lots of high spirited fun.

By contrast, Theodorakis has hammered out a populist approach to composition, grounded in his deeply Christianized Marxism. As a political leader, he has had to endure prison, house arrest, and national censorship of his work in Greece. Even as he has come to emblemize Greek music for the world at large especially by virtue of his film scores and popular songs, during the 1980s he has produced a body of large-scale symphonic works, culminating in Symphony No. 7, which mark his return to the concert stage.

This is a curious work in many ways, not least of which is its number. Of Theodorakis' numbered symphonies before this, there are three. He deliberately gives this the name "Symphony No.7" not to show its numerical sequence but to invite comparison with Beethoven's No.7--the work of Beethoven that he finds to be most comparably "patriotic." That in itself is a curious label for the Beethoven No.7, especially since Theodorakis' work, however steeped in Greek landscapes and language, moves in its last movement not toward a Greek musical nationalism but emphatically away from it in order to claim the vast universalizing choral gesture most often associated with the final movement of Beethoven's No.9. So why is this not Theodorakis' "Symphony No.9"?

Curious also is the fact that the idiom of this symphony seems overall closer to Mahler than Beethoven. In any case, it is by any standards anachronistic and conservative. Theodorakis’ No.3 has marked references to Shostakovich (I’ve jokingly even referred to it as Shostakovich’s No.16); and so it clearly speaks out of one of the major idioms of its time. No.7, however, seems to leap back across twentieth century symphonic developments such as Shostakovich to straddle a bygone sound world that has one foot in Beethoven and the other in Mahler. Curious. Curious.

But what glorious results are achieved. From the brooding opening movement, to the angry "barking" of the second, and from the surging strings of the third to the climactic chorus of the final movement, this is an epic work with no contemporary peers that I can call to mind. The Byzantine chant melody, which forms the basis of the final hymn-like climax, ultimately makes this work totally memorable. Hackneyed as its burst of organ may well be, and predictable as its play of solo quartet against large choirs, the utter conviction with which Theodorakis drives forward his musical message makes this one of the few works that one might dare to consider comparing to the Beethoven Ninth--that one might dare to imagine attaining in time the festival role that the Beethoven has, say an outdoor performance to mark the fall of some future Berlin Wall.

Together, these disks invite listeners into surprising and gratifying sound journeys. Their contents bear up well under repeated listenings; and the immediacy of concert occasions give each an historic monumentality. If Xenakis pushes to the boundaries of what we can embrace in the name of music, Theodorakis calls us to re-embrace ourselves in the name of our very humanity.

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