38 of 39 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
Iannis Xenakis is one of the most original and unusual composers and theorists of the 20th century. His music has a remarkably small connection to previous music, as if it arrived from some distant galaxy. His ideas are important and influential - he made music unlike anyone else. To go one step further, I believe that his music was never more powerful than when he wrote for percussion. His works are brutal, severe, intricately conceived, and expertly notated. This collection is an awesome testament to the raw power of his percussion music.
Steven Schick is one of the preeminent interpreters of Xenakis's music and thus it is fitting that he should produce this first collection. I can think of no one more qualified to perform these works. There ARE other excellent records of certain works (namely "Psappha" and "Rebonds") by Sylvio Gualdo, Gert Mortensen, and others, but these artists haven't recorded as widely as Schick. Red Fish Blue Fish, the resident percussion ensemble at the University of California, San Diego (where Schick teaches) provides interesting interpretations of the ensemble works, which I will comment on later.
The collection begins with Persephassa convincingly performed by RFBF. This is a very clean recording of an enormously difficult work. There is much attention to details and excellent sonic choices all around. The stereo mix is not the correct format to experience the work due to the placement of the six percussionists who encircle the audience, but the individual musicians are nicely panned, so the listener gets broad soundstage. Unfortunately, many of us don't have access to a 5.1 system, so this is the next best thing. Interestingly, RFBF decided to overdub extra parts at the very end of the work. Xenakis notates clouds of note densities from each instrument class. Thus, RFBF used a take for each and then layered them, providing the first technically "accurate" realization of the score. This seems surprising, but it IS effective and I wouldn't consider it cheating because I have seen them perform the work live without the help of overdubs to great effect.
Psappha is one of the trademark works from Schick's repertoire (along with Bone Alphabet, Rebonds, and Toucher) - he seems to play it a lot, as well he should. It's significant that he has never recorded Psappha until now, especially since he's released Rebonds multiple times. His interpretation differs from the European predilection for large, low drums as his interpretation uses smaller drums and very clear, distinct sounds. After seeing Schick perform Psappha in concert numerous times, I'm a little surprised with this recording. Parts feel almost lethargic. His tempos seem to be much more conservative here, but it's not necessarily a bad thing. This is, without a doubt, the most precise realization of Psappha that I've ever heard. Each stroke seems to be in the exact correct place. This work presents enormous difficulty for the performer, but Schick manages to execute it with almost clinical precision. However, that is not to say that his interpretation is overly analytical - it is alive and vibrant to be sure. This is an interpretation that stands well on its own, but it will also be quite useful for performers wishing to study the work simply because of its accuracy and clarity.
Dmaathen is an intense work for percussion and oboe. Again, Schick realizes a remarkably difficult score without making it seem difficult. The performer is often required to play both vibraphone and marimba simultaneously, a largely physical challenge, but Schick breezes through these sections as if they were one instrument. I'm not quite as taken with Jacqueline Leclair's oboe performance. I have heard more spirited performances, but considering the unusual extended techniques required, it's still a solid performance.
Pleiades has taken some time to get used to. I still maintain the Percussions de Strasbourg recording as my reference because it is somehow a little more exciting. Also, I prefer the sound of Strasbourg's Sixxen (an instrument Xenakis created that each ensemble must build themselves) to the RFBF set. It's true that Xenakis didn't want a 12-note scale and the RFBF set are definitely more microtonal than the Strasbourg set, but they sound weaker some how. The main benefit of the RFBF recording is the amazing clarity. Every part is performed with excellent precision.
Since Schick has recorded Rebonds previously, and each recording is special, but not wildly different. He turns in the typical amazing performance once again. I'm not as familiar with Okho for three djembes, but it is also a successful, exciting performance.
The remaining works are available for the first time in this collection. There may be previous recordings on vinyl or on small international labels, but as these are not widely available, this is essentially the first chance many will have to experience these works. My favorite is Komboi for harpsichord and percussion. Aiyun Huang provides a stellar interpretation. Incidentally, she is a very promising solo artist that I'm sure we will be hearing more from very soon. What's more impressive though is the harpsichord performance. Komboi means "knots" - as Xenakis says, knots of rhythm, knots of harmonies. The harpsichord part is unbelievably complex sometimes indicated on up to 4 separate staves. The unlikely combination of harpsichord and percussion is actually extremely effective. Although it lasts a solid 20 minutes, it never gets tiresome.
Oophaa is also for percussion and harpsichord, but I didn't find it quite as exciting as Komboi. Similarly, I didn't enjoy Kassandra as much as the others, but they are well performed and interesting works. All the works are well recorded with an amazing dynamic range, nice spatialization, and great sonic clarity. Mode Records should be commended for backing this project.
The only negative comment concerns the packaging. The set comes in a cardboard case which holds three cardboard sleeves and a trilingual booklet. The cardboard sleeves fell apart almost immediately. They are no meant to last and that is a shame because this set will clearly be on people's shelves for a long, long time. This is the same problem I have with Mode's release of Feldman's 5-disc String Quartet No. 2. Mode should invest in better packaging. They create amazing releases, so why not put them in a hard case?
Overall, this set is essential for an percussionist, any fan of 20th century music, and many others. Xenakis can be difficult to listen to, but his percussion works are arguably the best introduction to his world. You need this set. Buy without hesitation and enjoy!
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
21st Century Reviews
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
I have held off from this set until now. I have certainly a minds' eye view of what I thought it was going to sound like, and it does sound really really good. The sonics here are outstanding, with a superbly lit stage and tight-ish acoustic (that opens up a bit in 'Persephassa'). It's just another stellar Mode recording, move on!
Les Percussions de Strasbourg (Philips)
Carnegie Mellon (Mode)
red fish blue fish (Mode)
Straight up, this is pretty well now first choice. The famous multi-tracked ending is truly outrageously good, reminding me of 'La Legende d'Eer' more than anything. It's just incredible. And the instruments all sound great and the playing is superbly controlled.
The original PoS recording is a wonderfully primal black hole vortex, coming off like an ancient ritual, as intended (here, the Mode is just transcendent). This is still quite essential listening, but this Mode is obviously in a class by itself.
The first Mode ('Xenakis/Varese') has more reverb, and obviously just isn't as detailed, but is still quite good. But, this new one is just so much more perfect.
The Demoe just didn't move me so much, maybe I'll try again (it has a more pronounced spatial effect that either works or doesn't).
Anyhow, good choice opening up the set with this massive and spectacular rendering.
I'm just shocked how slow Schick takes this 10 minute piece. At 14 minutes, he's still not as slow as Pugliese's 16! minutes, but, pretty much ONLY Mortensen (maybe Markus Hauke gets into the 10s) clocks in at 11 minutes, and it just sounds right, like a drummers' playing.
Here, Schick just does not move me at all. The woodblocks first entrance is just so slow, and the ending (well, partly ok)... and the sounds are all just so small. The primal power of this piece is really just lost, and in some places I feel like he's just banging away at different kitchen things. I'm sorry, but this is not the Psappha you want to get started with.
I mean, I'm somewhat glad, but, I mean,... argh... I know this performances has disappointed others. For a good slow version, go with Sadlo on Teldec. He just nails all the elements missing here. I'm still in shock!
Well, then we have some very good news! Forever we have only had Glaetzer's pioneering recording... from the '70s LP era I believe, and it has certainly served well, and revealed one of Xenakis's most charming works. But here we really have some awesomeness: the percussion is sumptuously recorded, and the oboe sounds like it's playing walls of chords. Leclair really plays the mm mm mm out of the piece, much more varied than Glaetzer (not faulting him).
The mixing of such disparate sounds is truly wonderful. This and 'O-Mega' are now my two favorite Schick tracks. Yes, I was really surprised and delighted with this.
Les Percussions de Strasbourg (Denon- NOT Harmonia Mundi!)
Les Pleiades (Erato)
red fish blue fish (Mode)
Well, we now have five available recordings of this great piece, one of which I just can't recommend because of the claustrophobic recording. The others I all love for different reasons, though the first two are the standouts and trade strengths throughout.
This new one starts off by having a tighter acoustic than any other, which seems to give a different feel to the piece. The massive Denon recording makes it sound like a symphony; here, it's chamber-like. But, the clarity in just great here. The opening sixxen has never sounded as good (though the Denon is the other best), and overall it's just a great compliment to the other three European performances. Yes, so, this is an American Pleiades!
This is only second appearance, and the classic Erato recording has served us well. But here is another highpoint of this set. The harpsichord is a deliciously pungent instrument here, and the percussion is mixed together so well that well are almost hearing one instrument as Xenakis intended. Yes, this is a wonderful performance- thought the recording is almost the star too!
Sakkas/Gualda (Salabert Actuels)
Someone pointed out how much more creepy this version is from the original, and I heartily concur. It goes from a 13 minutes piece to 20 here, and perhaps the added concentration is what sets this apart. The original was just a wild crazy good fun time, but here it is taken deadly serious, and the drama carries over- this piece takes on an almost orchestral texture and made more of a convert of me. I had always loathed this piece from the beginning, but here one truly hears how "they won't listen" to Kassandra's "pounding" warnings, until at the end there is a "giving up" because no one can "hear". I don't know, I found it powerful stuff, and it goes to show that there are hidden things in Xenakis that great players can bring out (no offence to Sakkas/Gualda). The psaltery really has a menacing tang to it here.
Another highpoint of this set. As a matter of fact, all the duos are just simply outstandingly presented.
This is a good Okho, superbly and crisply recorded so one can greatly hear the fingertips. It, like most other Okhos, lacks the spatial element (left-center-right) that was a standout feature of the Demoe's recording. There, one heard each drummer distinctly so that the interplay took on an extra degree of excitement. Here that is achieved by a really nice recording position, but the players still sound to me to be coming from the same basic direction.
The original Trio le Circle (Montaigne) was a somewhat muddy or indistinct recording, and I haven't heard the Hague group on Globe (though the sample sounded somewhat blank). But the previous Mode offering ('Ensemble Music 2') was a pretty good effort, with the acoustic supplying that fourth partner that made that recording so nice.
I also like the Talujon on a very nice various cd. I made a judgement call on the Pedro Carnieo (ZigZag Territories) and sold- nothing good or bad, but I chose the Mode and Talujon over Carniero, so, he got the boot. (very sweet recording though)
One thing: did I not hear a BIG bass drum here? It just passed by and I know I didn't hear anything distinct. I'll have to go back. Also, some of the rhythmic interplay was captured much better in the previous Mode. Yes, this is a very greatly recorded Okho, and it is played as well as one would want, but there is a 'fluttering effect' missing here because there is no real spatial/acoustic interplay- which, frankly, in such a vanilla sounding piece- it would seem a no brainer (still, only one other version has really taken advantage).
Again, this is an outstanding mixed-duo recording. It was a nice touch to have to two harpsichord duo played by totally different people. We've had the original for a long while, and the piece is very soft sounding there and mild and was a favourite of mine for its pacific character. But here we have a really detailed read, bringing out a lot of things, and a little most aggressive sounding. The percussions sounds sound great, and again there is an almost orchestral texture to the mix.
btw- I think John Mark Harris has a spectacular 'Evryali' on YT, check it out!
That brings us to Schick's third recording of Rebonds, the end of the set. I noted my shock at his slow Psappha, but here- I'm sorry to say it- but there are like a LOT of problem hits (for me) here. There's a lot of (presumably accidental) stick hitting (my single most hated percussion sound). I mean, the first entrance of the woodblocks made me side up and go, Huh? It just didn't sound that good to me.
And when the real fireworks come, there are just some- I'm sorry, I'm going to call them embarrassing moments. it not as bad as the Robert McEwan (Mode 'Ensemble Music 2') or Johan Faber (Bvhaast), but I am absolutely shocked that Schick let this go. His much much earlier versions ("Born to be Wild" and "Drumming in the Dark") were both quite formidable contenders, and one still hears Schick's personal style here, but here there are moments when he almost sounds human, which, at this point, one just isn't allowed to do with Rebonds.
The very very best Rebonds you will find (yes, I'm being pretty sure of myself here!) is Marcus Leoson on Caprice, and absolutely epic reading that will take you right up Mount Olympus. It's absolutely essential. Both the earlier Schicks are absolutely solid. And Peter Sadlo on Koch is beautifully precise with nice instruments. But Leoson is Superman here.
Check Track5 at about 3.5 and 4.5 minutes, and Track6 towards the end when all the fur is flying. You'll be shocked to hear- gasp- humanity rearing its ugly head in Xenakis. I don't know, I would have let all the other drummers record it too and then pick the best one (maybe it was?).
Still, the sonics are really sweet, certainly it may the the most deliciously clear and professionally well lit recording of Rebonds, but, of course, it highlights every micro-moment... oh, there is the part... maybe the second or third entry of the woodblocks- and Schick actually plays it as a gallop!?!?! wHAAAAA??? I seriously thought he was parodying the piece, or trying to bring out some latent humour thing or something. I don't know, I'm just full of questions about this one.
But still, it does add a certain charm of 'weakness', as if we need to be remind of the impossibility of Xenakis (as the liner notes tell us- I guess Schick is demonstrating?). The fact is, we have great Psapphas and Rebonds, so, ok, I certainly will let them go, but I'm still concerned about Schick here. I mean, the two Xenakis solo works are the weakest part of this set- which is Schick's set. Again, thankfully these works have stalwart advocates already. Still, I'm in shock here. I guess the 4 Stars is for the 2Ps.
The four duos are all outstanding, absolutely outstanding, and more than likely represent the new modern standard (though, really, all the originals are absolutely essential for collectors).
The trio is very good, but not spectacularly outrageously so. But, then, most Okhos haven't really dug all that deep into this most enigmatic piece for a drum circle of three (really, couldn't a street band take up this piece and just play the vanilla right out of it? ... though, I head the Peabody group who played this on regular drums got quite a bit of flak (it did sound pretty cool though- but, I do see the point of keeping the instrumentation here- it's quite one of the most unique pieces out there by an avant composer).
The two big pieces are both unique, in different ways, but Persephassa in particular is an astounding achievement, with a truly spectacular ending that opens up vistas no one could see coming. Not to slight the Pleiades, for it is now, too, an essential reading, perfectly contrasting with all the European counterparts.
I say it is "For Collectors Only", because, this set should be a reward for having ploughed through the Xenakis discography, but, not everyone is an old school fan. I'd say this set could open up Xenakis for new listeners- but, people should have been listening a long time ago.
The other year Persephassa was performed in the lake in NYC,so, Xenakis may be going mainstream after all. Rebonds and Okho are being played by every aspiring percussionist,as is Psappha, and now the youngsters are getting hip on Persephassa and Pleiades. Go Xenakis!
Very Highly Recommended, Essential for Collectors