This CD presents three large pieces for orchestra by reclusive mid-twentieth century Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi, two of which represent his mature period, and one of which is a transitional piece. The composer's mature works seem to have evolved without any connection to the history of western music, except in their use of standard orchestral instruments and voices. There is nothing that could be construed as counterpoint in the traditional sense of the relationship between two or more simultaneously moving independent musical lines. There is nothing that could be characterized as melody, and the harmony, defined only as two or more pitches sounding simultaneously, moves slowly, if at all. Rhythmic pulse is virtually indiscernible. What is left is the use of dynamics and timbre, which, when they are the primary musical element, acquire monumental importance as they shift and evolve.
The title Quattro Pezzi (su una nota sola) (1959) is not entirely accurate; while each movement features a single pitch that sounds throughout the movement, it is layered with pitches that depart from it, if only microtonally, and those departures have the significance of major developments. The music consists almost entirely of long, sustained, overlapping tones. Scelsi's timbral shifts require close listening, but once the listener is acclimated to this radically circumscribed frame of reference, those shifts are heard as highly dramatic musical developments.
Following the tonally limited world of Quattro Pezzi, Uaxuctum, for ondes martenot, percussion, chorus, and chamber orchestra (1966), seems hugely expressive since all pitches are available here, but it retains the aesthetic of the previous piece. The composer achieves tremendous tension through textural overlays, and the use of the chillingly evocative wordless chorus, whose terrifying or ecstatic outbursts that depart from long-held notes are hugely dramatic. The monumentality of this music is breathtaking.
After hearing these works, La Nascita del Verbo comes as something of a shock in its use of melody and counterpoint and its more conventional musical development and structure. Written between 1946 and 1948, it seems positively old-fashioned when heard after the previous works on the CD. Even so, with its heavy reliance on overlapping sustained notes and timbral shifts, it's not hard to discern that this is the work of the same composer. For the Scelsi virgin, it would make sense to listen to this piece before the other two. The performances by the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Concentus Vocalis, and the Wiener Kammerchor are stunningly disciplined and atmospheric. The live recordings have some audience noise, which is especially noticeable in the very quiet Quattro Pezzi, but generally the sound is clear and crisp.