It is a nocturne like no other. A hot, abrasive soundscape of hustlers and dancers, stevedores and cops, first neon-bright then black as bitumen, defiantly, definitively urban.
Born in Paris and raised in Burgundy, Edgard Varèse heard the sounds he had dreamed of as a child in the night traffic of the Hudson River ("the lonely foghorns, the shrill peremptory whistles") and turned them into a lovesong: Amériques. Derided at its premiere as "a symphonic genuflection to the Fire Department and the Pneumatic Riveters' Union", this strident, glamorous, machine-age hymn to the New World was the climax of Varèse 360.
Few composers could be surveyed comprehensively in only three concerts. Fire destroyed nearly everything Varèse wrote prior to 1921, while depression and obsessive perfectionism further cramped his development. Unimpressed by 12-tone music ("les douze cons"), Neoclassicism and Futurism, he trod a lonely path. "I don't want to write any more for the old Man-power instruments", he told Leon Theremin, creator of the electronic cellos whose spectral duet closes Ecuatorial. Dreaming of new technology, Varèse had to wait until 1953 to realise his ambitions with the anonymous gift of a tape recorder: the atavistic terrors of Déserts and Poême electronique's hissing sonic pulses (devised for Le Corbusier's Philips Pavilion), leaving his pupil Chou Wen-chung to complete Etude pour espace.
For the rest, as revealed in London Sinfonietta's concerts with David Atherton, and the National Youth Orchestra's dazzling finale with Paul Daniel, Varèse wrestled with a musical language that was at once vast and highly condensed, exploring the same basic narrative with the same Man-power tools. For tools, read razored clusters of woodwind, pugilistic brass, several dozen drums, chimes, slap-sticks, gongs and sirens. Then there are the voices: in Ecuatorial, Sir John Tomlinson, raging like a Mayan god until soothed by the cello theremins; in Nocturnal, Elizabeth Watts spinning stratospheric cries of terror.
With such a battery of sound crammed into such short works, Varese 360 became a game of spotting older, softer influences. Un grand sommeil noir, redolent of Dukas, was sung exquisitely by Elizabeth Atherton. Debussy nodded sagely in the background during Michael Cox's performance of Density 21.5, while the overt exoticism of Octandre and the barbed filaments of Hyperprism both revealed a strong French accent.
Had Ravel taken a different path, could he have ended up here? Though Hollywood ignored Varèse, it is impossible to hear his music without seeing the flying saucers of B-movies or the sharp shadows and wet streets of film noir. Even with the restoration of a passage that points back to Impressionism, the underbelly of Amériques is pure Weegee. Jazz breathes its smoky breath over Dance for Burgess and Tuning Up, while the pounding rhythms and wailing sirens of Ionisation, though written in Paris, offer a soundtrack to the building of skyscrapers. The skyscraper is a decent metaphor for Varèse's work, which occupies a small space, only three concerts wide, yet reaches high and casts a long shadow.
First Placido Domingo drops a register. Now countertenor superstar Andreas Scholl has a go, for two numbers, in a winsome programme of Oswald von Wolkenstein's autobiographical lute songs. Five centuries before Varèse set off for New York, Wolkenstein left the Tyrol with three cents in his pocket. By 1417, the one-eyed diplomat, poet and composer had married, become a father, and visited Prussia, Lithuania, Turkey, France, Lombardy, Spain and Jerusalem. But as Scholl's recital showed, his appetites for travel, women and self-aggrandisement were never sated.
Directed by Jos Groenier, with video imagery by Joost Gulien taken from contemporary paintings, illuminations and sculpture, this was a lavish portrait of a chancer who borrowed most of his melodies from others. If Gulien's images encouraged us to see the humanity in the faces of mediaeval art, Scholl's intent was to highlight the art in Wolkenstein's strophic, confessional ditties, beautifully decorated by viol, quinterne and dulcimer, with harpist and singer Kathleen Dineen playing poor, devoted Mrs Wolkenstein. Personally, I'd have changed the locks.
David McVicar's new production of Aida opens at the Royal Opera House. Anna Picard will be thereReuse content