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!