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This is by now a classic set of chamber music by Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001), best known for his massive orchestral and electronic works. I was disappointed when I first heard it because I expected to find more string quartets. As it happens, Xenakis did not work that much in the string quartet form, and of his four quartets only "Tetras" is among his masterpieces.
Taking this set, recorded in 1991 at WDR Koln and Radio France, as a survey of his chamber music, I can't give it less than five stars. Claude Helffer on piano, born the same year as the composer and so 69 years old when he performed these notoriously difficult works, and the Arditti Quartet play marvelously. Irvine Arditti and David Alberman play violin, and I assume Arditti plays the solo violin pieces and the violin & piano duet though the liner notes do not specify. Garth Knox plays viola, and the great Rohan de Saram plays cello.
The earliest quartet, "ST/4" (1956-62 -- 12'56), was not written as a quartet at all. ST stands for "stochastic music," and Xenakis developed algorithms in the late Fifties to generate music from probabilities. ST/4 was extracted from the larger piece ST/10 (there was also an ST/48), and used for a string quartet which was finalized in 1962. The resulting quartet is fascinating -- pointillistic, with lots of space and extended techniques, as well as incredibly dense passages, the level of density resulting from the algorithm. I do not consider this piece one of Xenakis's masterworks, but it is fascinating and compelling.
"Tetras" (1983 -- 17'33) is one of Xenakis's absolute masterpieces, and one of the greatest string quartets of the late 20th century. Dedicated to the Arditti Quartet, it is one of the composer's most effective chamber works, bringing to the quartet the level of complexity, energy, and audacity that marked so many of his works for large forces. As James Harley says, "In 'Tetras,' Xenakis's abstract thinking had evolved into a nonlinear, multi-dimensional web of formal and sonic relationships." The title is Greek for "four." According to the liner notes by Harry Halbreich, the piece is divided into nine sections, and throughout the four players mainly play as a sound mass rather than polyphonally: 1) glissandi, 2) percussive & pizzicati effects, 3) glissandi, 4) pointillistic sounds, 5) sustained chords to runs to glissandi, 6) harsh double-stops, 7) a violin & viola duo, 8) a metrically complex tutti, and finally 9) strong tremolos subsiding into pianissimo glissandi. This is far more schematic than the piece actually sounds -- it sounds exhilarating, phenomenal, and totally amazing!
"Tetora" (1990 -- 13'41), another word that means "four," is austere and somber. It opens with a modal melody, moves through great blocks of dissonant chords, all using a steely non-vibrato sonority, building to a great climax. Xenakis composed a fourth string quartet, "Ergma" (1994 -- 8'30), after these recordings. It can be found on the Xenakis: Complete String Quartets disc, recorded by the JACK Quartet. It is stripped down even further, and is characterized by harsh dissonance, maximum loudness throughout, and double stops, with a thick, intense sonority. It must be said that "Tetora" and "Ergma," the last two quartets, from Xenakis's late period which began in the late Eighties, lack the multi-dimensional complexity and excitement of "Tetras."
After "Tetras," I find the two works for solo cello to be the most powerful and compelling of these chamber works: "Nomos Alpha" (1966 -- 15'22) and "Kottos" (1977 -- 9'39). The solo violin pieces are short, and while the solo viola piece ("Embellie") is longer, none of the three make nearly the same impact as the cello music. "Nomos Alpha" revolutionized cello technique, and while "Kottos" is not as radical, it is quite beautiful, despite Xenakis's instructions to the performer to "abstain from beautiful sounds." There is also a string trio, "Ikhoor" (1978).
The works for piano include the piano quintet "Akea" (1986), the solo works "Herma" (1960-61), "Evryali" (1973), "Mists" (1980), and "a.r." (1987), and "Dikhtas" (1979) for violin and piano. I continue to warm up to Xenakis's piano music, but lacking the ability to play glissandos, which are such an integral part of his vast structures of sound, I have always found it less compelling than his string music. Helffer is masterful, and some of these pieces are more accessible than you would think!
Naive has reissued this set in a deluxe box (Xenakis: Chamber Music), but the only advantage of the box over this standard jewel-box version might be price. The music is identical and the liner notes are mainly identical, though actually two small things found here are omitted: a nice chronological table of the compositions by type and year, and a glossary of terms such as arborescences, glissando, sieve, and stochastic. Harry Halbreich's essay is informative, with additional commentary on each composition.
*** *** ***
Xenakis is one of the greatest composers of the late 20th century, and this set is mandatory listening for anyone interested in the best of the post-war avant-garde.